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My view: First Minister Peter Robinson has a duty towards human rights and equality

By Mohsen al Attar

Rarely do I bother with the ramblings of pastors, clerics or other members of religious orders. And so, just as I had no time for the blathering of Abu Qatada on Christians and Jews, I dismissed Pastor James McConnell's prattle on Muslims without a second thought.

That was until the First Minister spoke on the matter. Peter Robinson seemed eager to add fuel to the fire, offering a curious and slapdash defence to the pastor's assault. Apparently demonising a billion-and-a-half people or labelling their faith “satanic” and “evil” is not indicative of any hatred on the part of the speaker.

Putting aside any (valid) moral critique, I note that expressions of hatred are prohibited by the Public Order Act 1986. This includes threatening, abusive and insulting words that the speaker uses to stir up racial hatred or for which there is a probability that racial hatred will

ensue. The purpose of the provision is self-evident: to protect people from the violence occasioned by the hatred of others.

What matters here is what McConnell said and not who he said it about. The appropriate response then is an investigation into whether his words warrant prosecution under the Public Order Act, an investigation the PSNI is presently conducting. For Robinson, however, the matter is rather different.

To carry out his duties competently, there is an expectation that he would familiarise himself with statutes relevant to his mandate. Included in his responsibilities are equality and human rights across Northern Ireland, both of which are intimately connected to hate speech.

When Robinson claims that not trusting a section of society is not a hate crime, he is being misleading in his interpretation of the law. It is true that neither McConnell nor Robinson can (nor should) be prosecuted for not trusting Muslims, but using a pulpit to warn others about the supposed wickedness of neighbours solely because of the faith they practice is a different act altogether.

With this in mind, I extend an invitation to the First Minister. One of the modules I teach at Queen's University is ‘Discrimination and the Law’ where we consider the law's relationship to equality and the obligations it imposes on government officials. Should he be so inclined, I would be happy to have a conversation with him about hate speech.

Dr Mohsen al Attar is a senior |lecturer with the Queen’s University Belfast Faculty of Law

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