I have had the pleasure of working with the Egyptian Society of Northern Ireland (a Muslim society open to all faiths and none) since 2005 when I first hosted an event in Lisburn to mark the end of Ramadan and since then have several times hosted the event in Stormont. When we first used Stormont it was and remains the first and only time a Western European Parliament has hosted a Muslim event. Northern Ireland has received much positive publicity from these occasions, across the Arab world.
Junior Minister Jonathan Bell has attended and Jeffrey Donaldson also has supported the Society by attendance at some events. Jeffrey, like myself has visited Egypt as a guest of the Society, meeting Egyptian government ministers, all intended to foster good relations between the two countries and the possibility of business links/educational exchanges and to promote cross community understanding and mutual respect within Northern Ireland.
You can therefore understand my dismay at the remarks by the First Minister in relation to the disgraceful outburst by Pastor McConnell. I was saddened but not surprised by The Pastor, he isn’t the first firebrand preacher in NI to lose the run of himself, but his remarks were clearly designed to promote fear of and ultimately hatred towards Islam and its followers, whatever his apologists may argue.
The First Minister of Northern Ireland then stoked the flames by lending the weight of his office in support, implying that Muslims are not to be trusted and are not therefore an integral part of NI society, something which his own Junior Minister and a senior MP have by their commendable actions, sought to encourage.
A lot of righteous indignation has been directed at Mr Robinson but the real question is this – was there a single person who voted DUP who regretted doing so after they heard his remarks? I hope so, but they are very quiet at present.
It is all very well for the rest of us to demand apologies, but the real challenge is to develop a fundamental understanding that we are all equal citizens of Northern Ireland regardless of our religious background or affiliation and until we do that we will simply continue to recycle Unionist leaders who pursue the same agenda of exclusion and intolerance – and get rewarded for doing so.