Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 31 July 2014

Robinson Islam remarks: It wasn't just what what he said, but how he said it

Peter Robinson insists sorry isn't the hardest word, but it has taken almost a week for the First Minister to publicly apologise for his comments on Muslims.

Last night's remarks, after a carefully choreographed visit to the Belfast Islamic Centre – complete with smiles, handshakes and even a bouquet of flowers – has probably done enough to douse the flames of what was fast becoming a heated row.

If Mr Robinson was feeling any pressure of recent days, he certainly didn't show it.

The First Minister appeared relaxed as he met the seven-strong welcoming delegation outside the centre, greeting one with a friendly: "How are you? Lovely to see you".

Spotting a familiar face, he smiled and said: "Good to see you again".

After an hour-long meeting, he was flanked by Muslim leaders and a party colleague, Junior Minister Jonathan Bell, as he apologised for the offence which he acknowledged his comments had caused.

His regret was couched in some of the same qualifying language he had used when he met representatives last week.

He was sorry "if" – rather than "that" – what he had said had caused hurt.

A subtle difference, but a significant one.

Mr Robinson accepted his remarks had caused hurt, but again qualified it by saying "in many cases", as if trying to comfort himself that there are some Muslims who are okay with his earlier views.

Somewhat bizarrely, he also said he had apologised "man to man" and "face to face", assuming the people he met speak for all the Muslim world and suggesting he still doesn't understand why the apology needed to be public.

Mr Robinson also appeared to blame the media for the row, saying the Press had centred on the issue of an apology.

Nor was there a specific apology for what was the most incendiary line in his comments – the infamous 'go to the shops' quote – which has been almost buried in the wider controversy on Islam.

The First Minister said he can't spend the rest of his life apologising, which is a fair point.

It might have been better if he made clear that he trusted Muslims and did not regard Islam as inspired by Satan.

However, he has probably done enough and there is no suggestion that what he said last night was anything less than heartfelt and well-intentioned.

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