First Minister Peter Robinson must go or Stormont will be a sham

Posted By: May 31, 2014

If the outcry over the First Minister’s controversial comments about Muslims isn’t grounds for resignation, what is, asks Malachi O’Doherty

BelfastTelegraph. Friday,  MAY 30,  2014

By not resigning after his forked-tongue defence of Pastor James McConnell, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, is not conducting himself like a responsible politician in a democratic culture.

If the Assembly can’t impress that principle on him, then it will not be functioning like a competent and mature parliament. But there will be no surprise in that.

The statement which he made yesterday, claiming that he was misrepresented, is half-true, like most of what he said. Some people did exaggerate the actual message from Robinson. He did not say that he did not trust all Muslims, yet he was speaking in defence of Pastor McConnell, who did say that, and he provided examples of occasions where he would and wouldn’t trust a Muslim by way of showing that McConnell’s meaning could be parsed in a more generous way.

In doing so, he stumbled into an idiotic and condescending assurance that he would trust a Muslim to run a message for him.

He says he was merely explaining that he wouldn’t trust a fanatic, but no one would expect him to and the statements had no force in them at all – were hardly worth making – if they meant as little as he now says they did.

What stands in question now is the integrity of the First Minister. How does he actually discuss Muslims and others when he is off-guard? How much is he in tune with the thinking of a narcissistic buffoon like James McConnell?

And how aware is he himself of his own temper and his own prejudices?

He doesn’t seem to understand what was offensive about the image he painted of sending a Muslim to the shops when this was the first illustration that came to mind of how he might interact with one.

He spontaneously thought of the Muslim in a servile position to himself, not as a professional equal, for instance as a doctor, or a solicitor, but as a message boy.

Twenty-four hours later, he could conjure up an image of a Muslim he could respect, but it didn’t come easily to him in the original interview.

And, while he can rationally explain what he intended, he can not erase the impression he has created of himself as a smug and imperious bigot.

But, further, he has exposed his own credibility by going out on a limb for a twerp like McConnell.

James McConnell demonstrated that he has no competence to speak on Islam at all. It is bewildering that anyone who wanted to be respected for intelligence and integrity would rush to his defence when he is spouting inflammatory and insulting nonsense. Yet that is what our most senior politician did.

But Robinson is not about to take lectures from people whose offences have been greater than his own and that is the context in which this crisis has to be viewed.

He does not trust the integrity of his critics, either in the media or other parties.

His deputy, Martin McGuinness, was an IRA commander and Robinson has seen the political system remade to give reserved places in power to Sinn Fein as the larger nationalist party.

He was among those to argue that bringing former paramilitaries into government would corrupt it.

What it has done is produce the anomaly that people come under pressure to resign because of minor infractions of parliamentary principle while others, whose past offences were far worse, are in position to demand those resignations and summon them to account for themselves.

The result of all that is that no crime, or insult, is so grave that it diminishes the authority of a party leader.

There are no words that can be spoken that are so offensive that the speaker would have to resign.

Robinson’s allies would be appalled if he was forced out of office for trying ineptly to defend his bumbling pastor and seeming to betray a prejudice he denies, while the leader of Sinn Fein simply ascends to greater glory after being questioned by the police on suspicion of ordering the murder of a widowed mother-of-10.

But if we don’t have an Assembly that operates by the standards and values of a real parliament in a civilised, modern democracy, then we have nothing worth defending.

And it may be that we haven’t.