Robinson risks forfeiting moral authority on sectarianism

Opinion: ‘He lit the fire and I think it is very difficult to stop the fire from burning’

‘In vile language, the pastor said Islam was satanic, and Muslims could not be trusted.’ Above, the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle where Pastor James McConnell made comments about Muslims last week. Photograph: Peter Morrison/AP

Muhammad Asif Khattak is a graduate of tourism and hospitality. The young Pakistani man, who works for Vodafone in Belfast, has just had a taste of the warmth and friendliness for which Northern Ireland considers itself renowned.

In the early hours of Sunday morning, he and his friend were woken by the sound of breaking glass as a bottle was hurled through the front window of their house in north Belfast. That afternoon, a crowd gathered to shout racist abuse at them as they cleaned up the mess. Khattak also suffered cuts and bruises after he was assaulted.

Local MP Nigel Dodds of the DUP condemned the attack, as did Sinn Féin and the SDLP, but Khattak blamed the First Minister’s disparaging remarks about Muslims last week. “He lit the fire and I think it is very difficult to stop the fire from burning,” he said.

Khattak also reminded Peter Robinson of something about which the DUP leader seems oblivious: “He is a leader for all, including all ethnic minorities, he is our leader as well.”



The afternoon, before the attack, a multicultural crowd of 4,000 people had gathered at Belfast’s City Hall to protest at Robinson’s refusal to distance himself from a racist outburst from flatpack fundamentalist James McConnell. In vile language, the pastor said Islam was satanic and Muslims could not be trusted. It was the condescending dismissiveness of Robinson’s response that enraged and offended. He wouldn’t trust Muslims in matters of faith either, he said, though he would trust them to go to the shops for him.

Anna Lo was so angry she cried on the BBC's Nolan Show. The longtime migrants rights activist and Alliance MLA came to Northern Ireland from Hong Kong 40 years ago and still has to contend with racist intimidation. This intensified recently after she suggested menacing loyalist paramilitary murals in east Belfast be removed before the Giro d'Italia passed by.

She also expressed outrage when Ukip put up posters claiming that immigrants were taking Northern Irish jobs.

Lo is a diminutive figure known for her courage, hard work and good humour. She said she was considering leaving Northern Ireland.

After the rally, she told me she was a bit embarrassed about the public tears. “I was just heartbroken,” she said. “I felt the vulnerability of people. We must all stand up against sectarianism and racism.”

PSNI figures show violence motivated by these hatreds is on the rise. Lo, overwhelmed by the support she has been shown, has decided to stay. “My faith in the people of Northern Ireland has been restored,” she said.

Ugly affair

The faith of the rest of the world may be a different matter. The DUP, along with Sinn Féin and the other parties, is currently trying to attract investment and develop export markets in Asia and the Middle East. There is a trade mission under way in Qatar, Oman and Kurdistan.

This ugly affair has dominated the North's media since last week, gone viral on Twitter, and has been covered by media outlets all over the world, including the BBC, Channel Four, Al Jazeera and the South China Morning Post.

You know the DUP knows it has behaved badly when it bullishly declares it will “take no lectures from . . .”, followed by some accusation of historic wrongdoing by its critics.

So while Martin McGuinness was on RTÉ chatting about his friendship with Ian Paisley and his respect for Queen Elizabeth, the DUP was casting up his IRA past, by way of saying it didn’t care if the Deputy First Minister accused the First Minister of inflaming hatred. As if the violence of the conflict justifies political irresponsibility today.

Back in the 1930s, Lord Brookeborough infamously declared that Catholics were not to be trusted. There has been a dishonourable tradition of unionist leaders making incendiary remarks and then denouncing those who flare up and lash out, believing they have been encouraged to do so.

The Northern Ireland that is led by the First and Deputy First Ministers is meant to be based on trust and equality.

Robinson may have privately apologised to the Muslim leaders in the North, but he has dangerously risked forfeiting the moral authority to tackle sectarianism and racism in his own ranks. He must now show that he is intelligent enough to understand Khattak’s points about leadership.