Posted By: June 05, 2014

Newton Emerson.Irish news ( Belfast).Thursday, June 5, 2014


PETER Robinson has said sorry to the leaders of Northern Ireland’s Muslim congregation in what is being reported as a “public apology”, although it is hard to see how this differs from his apology to the same people last week, which was also held in private then recounted by both sides in public. At least this time Robinson did not deploy the classic non-apology apology of saying he was sorry if his remarks had been misinterpreted. However, we still do not know why Robinson spoke in the manner he now apparently regrets. The absurdity of his language and reasoning during the original Irish News interview, in which he defended Pastor James McConnell, demands assurance that we are not experiencing a serious first ministerial malfunction. Any one of Robinson’s army of advisers could have told him that a question about McConnell’s anti-Islamic sermon was heading his way, that he could answer it without causing the slightest controversy and that failing to do so would make him a hostage to every racist incident thereafter. The DUP may have been busy with elections in the week-and-a-half between McConnell’s sermon coming to light and Robinson’s disastrous interview but anticipating and preparing for that interview should have been literally the work of minutes. The sermon was first publicised by the satirical Loyalists Against Democracy (LAD) website, which raised it specifically in relation to Robinson’s attendance at McConnell’s north Belfast church. LAD’s blog promptly went viral across social media. The DUP would have noticed this and would have known to take it seriously, given LAD’s role in putting Belfast councillor Ruth Patterson before the courts last December over a Facebook posting. The elections would only have made it more urgent to give Robinson a line to take, which could have been as simple as “I respect everyone’s rights to free expression and freedom of religion”. If anyone had worried about a trick question on libel reform or blasphemous plays in Newtownabbey, a caveat that these rights are not absolute (as Anna Lo later noted) would have squared all foreseeable circles. Frankly there should have been no need for advisers, offering advice or warnings. Any sixth-former could be expected to construct a harmless defence on the spot for free expression and freedom of religion and most could phrase it in a way that pleased observant Christians and Muslims alike. Rights, equality and community relations are all part of Robinson’s ministerial portfolio and pledge of office. Has he never been briefed on their most basic tenets? Considering how easy a straightforward response would have been, his rambling digression on trust, Sharia law and going to the shops looked like an active attempt to avoid it. In the absence of an explanation, theories about Robinson pursuing the UKIP and fundamentalist Christian votes have filled the void. These theories assume Robinson sat down and plotted major repositioning manoeuvres without giving a moment’s thought to signalling them. Why else would the signal have been so needlessly weird, insulting and dangerous (and relayed via a nationalist newspaper)? The likeliest answer we have is that Robinson did not see anything wrong in McConnell’s sermon, did not therefore heed advice or think through a response and ended up blurting out his true feelings when the question inevitably arose. In the wake of his non-apology apology, Robinson made reference to respecting the individual in a clear attempt to rationalise his defence of one pastor with his attack on an entire religious group. However, it was all too rarefied and after-the-fact to sound genuine. If he had put that much thought into his opinions, he would never have voiced them in the first place. After Robinson became first minister in 2008 it was briefly fashionable to describe him as a ‘technocrat’, a term more usually applied to the post-graduate engineers at the top of the Chinese Community Party. This was the closest word journalists could find for their perception of Robinson as a strangely dispassionate political calculator, who had never made an issue of his faith even while rising at Ian Paisley’s right hand, or who had never donned a sash even while entering unionist politics in the 1970s. It has always been possible to believe that Robinson was a cut above the prejudiced fray, if only because of his oddball impatience. Now it is not. Now it seems that Robinson is a willing sheep in the boorish McConnell’s flock and that remarkably, for all his success, our first minister is just not very bright.