Vacuum is being filled by bigots
James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle is not the brightest of pastors. Like Ian Paisley, whom these days we're supposed to revere as a man of peace, he's a proud bigot. Both fervently adhere to the tenets of the 1646 Calvinist Westminster Confession that underpins the doctrine of the Church of Scotland and see as heretical any attempts to dilute its harsh language.
Until it suited him to do a deal that made him First Minister, Paisley often bellowed offensive terminology against Roman Catholic churches ("synagogues of Satan"), their members ("idolators") and Popes ("Antichrist"). Since the weakening of the Irish Catholic Church in recent years, evangelical Protestants have found a new threat in the shape of Islam.
When McConnell told his congregation that Islam was "Satanic" and a "doctrine spawned in Hell", he was reacting in outrage to the story of Meriam Ibrahim, sentenced in the Sudan to 100 lashes and death for converting to Christianity. But in a secular and politically correct world, 17th-century language jars.
After the story broke First Minister Peter Robinson, who has attended McConnell's church, stuck up for him. It would have been fine had he said he believed in free speech for all preachers as long as they weren't espousing violence and added the usual guff about immigrants being valued.
Instead, he was crass. "I wouldn't trust Muslims who are following Sharia law to the letter and neither would he," he explained. "However, I would have no difficulty in trusting Muslims to go down to the shop for me."
Although Robinson was trying to say that he thought Muslims were honest, the condescending words reminded everyone that he and his disgraced wife Iris lived in a privileged world.
The comments have done serious damage to attempts to sell Northern Ireland as a good place to invest Arab money.
More race hate crime was reported in Belfast in 2013 than in the whole province a decade earlier. To put this in context, levels of immigration have shot up in recent years, and immigrants are mainly located in the poorer areas, whose inhabitants become resentful and sometimes violent.
There is the additional problem of young alienated loyalists who are convinced by their leaders and by republican triumphalism that they are the losers in a culture war over flags, parades and other symbols. Anna Lo of the Alliance Party – already a target for racists and misogynists – had enraged this group by saying that she was in favour of a united Ireland. They retaliated with more abuse and an acceleration in their "Everyone-hates-us-but-we-don't-care" public relations strategy.
As Robinson and McConnell apologised too little, too clumsily and too late, Sinn Fein pranced around on the high moral ground. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness reverentially clutching a copy of the Koran outside the Belfast Islamic Centre while explaining piously that no one had the right to "hate-filled speech" caused an apoplectic reaction from those who remember how SF stirred up sectarian fear and loathing to justify IRA murders.
In an Assembly debate, the able, flinty Jim Allister interrupted an unctuous Sinn Fein junior minister with a reminder of the past. "Speaking of outrage and hate crimes, does the minister have any reflection on the hate crime towards foreigner Thomas Niedermayer in his kidnapping or the hate crime of the murder of Jeffrey Agate in Londonderry? What about her own hate crime of shooting a police officer?"
Jennifer McCann, who served half her 20-year sentence, responded: "I expect nothing more from you than to try to degenerate this very important debate into what you have just said."
The truth is that the Executive is in a state of near-paralysis, Robinson and McGuinness preserve their fiefdoms by dodging difficult issues, and in the absence of any credible strategies for dealing with sectarianism or racism, the worst elements of society are filling the vacuum.
Pastor McConnell may be a religious nutter, but he's a well-meaning soul whose church provides water, food and medical assistance in Ethiopia and Kenya. Unwittingly, he's done Northern Irish Muslims a favour.
Their representatives have behaved calmly and graciously and will now almost certainly be rewarded with generous grants to build a bigger and better mosque.
Talk about the law of unintended consequences!