SDLP Foyle MP Mark Durkan has accused Peter Robinson of “sneering condescension” and said that Derry Muslims were appalled by what the First Minister has said.
Mr Durkan added that the DUP leader’s now promised engagement with Muslim representatives here must not only be about repairing damage to his own image.
During an interview, Mr Robinson told the Irish News earlier this week that he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or devotees of Sharia law, but would “trust them to go to the shops” for him.
Mr Durkan said many people were embarrassed by what he had said.
“Peter Robinson’s words were gratuitously offensive,” he said. “I have spoken to Muslims in Derry who are not just appalled by Mr Robinson’s attempt to spin Pastor McConnell’s lines but feel violated by his contemptuous and contemptible tone.
I also know that many Christians feel embarrassment – and indeed resentment – that the ethic of their faith is misrepresented in the mischaracterisation of those of another faith.
“Mr Robinson is now trying to say that his words were misrepresented. How? He, not the media, stirred outrage by trying to present and defend Pastor McConnell’s statements in what he thinks is an acceptable light. He claimed that the man who used words like ‘satanic’, ‘new evil’ and ‘spawned in hell’ is the victim of demonisation. So we can all trust that politician to reverse reality.
“Trying to re-spin or re-package his own gratuitously offensive words will not wash while he still refuses to repudiate the gross misstatements of James McConnell.”
Mr Durkan said Peter Robinson needed to honour his Pledge of Office “to serve all the people of Northern Ireland equally, and to act in accordance with the general obligations on government to promote equality and prevent discrimination”.
“He is also pledged to comply with the Ministerial Code of Conduct, including to ‘operate in a way conducive to promoting good community relations and equality of treatment’,” Mr Durkan said.
“The First Minister should not have expressed himself or defended Pastor McConnell’s vitriol in the terms that he did. It has taken public outrage – with international and commercial reaction as well – to bring him to try to mitigate the hurt and damage of his ill-chosen words.”
In a statement issued by Peter Robinson, the First Minister claimed his remarks had been “misinterpreted and given a meaning that was never intended”.
He said: “I would never seek to cause any insult to any section of our community. For the avoidance of any doubt I make it clear that I welcome the contribution made by all communities in Northern Ireland, and in the particular circumstances, the Muslim community. “I very much value their contribution at every level to our society and I will take the opportunity to meet with local Muslim leaders to demonstrate my ongoing support for them as integral, law-abiding citizens in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Robinson went on to reiterate his support for the Pastor whose remarks sparked the controversy.
“I strongly believe that Pastor James McConnell has the right to freedom of speech,” he said. “I will defend his right just as I defend the right of others to express views with which I disagree.
“People have the right to express their differing views and indeed the essence of democracy is the ability to do so in a way that is free from fear and intimidation.
“No part of me would want to insult or cause distress to local Muslims. I can assure members of the Islamic community I respect their contribution to our society.
“I believe in building a peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland and have always endeavoured to work for the betterment of all the people of Northern Ireland.
“I look forward to meeting with representatives of the Muslim community as soon as it can be arranged.”