Belfast Telegraph

Peter Robinson Islam row: Business leader fears long-term trade damage as First Minister's remarks are broadcast all over the world

By Adrian Rutherford

The First Minister's remarks on Muslims could damage Northern Ireland's international image, it has been claimed.

Peter Robinson's comments have been widely published, including being carried on Al Jazeera, a leading broadcaster in the Middle East.

There is concern the furore could jeopardise trade links with the Muslim world.

Irwin Armstrong, a North Antrim businessman who chairs the NI Conservatives, said the controversy, coupled with a spate of recent high-profile racist attacks, has seen our international image take a battering.

"It just makes us look like a hate-filled province," he said.

Northern Ireland has been working to establish an economic foothold in the Middle East.

Last year companies here exported £221m worth of goods to the region.

The controversy also comes in the midst of an Invest NI trade mission to a number of fundamentalist Muslim states in the Middle East.

Mr Armstrong, who previously worked with the Northern Ireland Development Agency and has travelled abroad extensively on business, said the controversy undermined efforts to promote the region. "I would be concerned about governmental promotion," he added.

"If there are trade missions to the Middle East with government ministers who hold views like that, then it could be very difficult.

"Fortunately a lot of the trade missions now are organised in conjunction with UKTI, which is a UK-wide body, so it would probably be a British delegation as opposed to a Northern Ireland delegation, but I do see problems.

"You cannot go out and express those views about wide sections of the community."

Mr Armstrong said there was no reason for the first minister to wade into the controversy.

"Pastor McConnell may have views that were formed back in the 1950s or 1960s, so I can almost see from the fundamentalist religious point of view that he might hold those views, but an international statesman who travels around the world? That's a very different matter," he added.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, who chairs the Assembly's Enterprise, Trade and Investment committee, said Mr Robinson's comments were unhelpful.

"The message that is being sent out here by the First Minister, right across the world, is of a place that is not welcoming and of a place that is negative," he said.

Sinn Fein MLA Daithi McKay, who chairs Stormont's Finance Committee, said Mr Robinson's "backward and ill-informed comments" had the potential to damage Northern Ireland's reputation abroad.

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