Muslim controversy far-reaching: Whether he thinks so or not, Peter Robinson's comments about how much he trusts Muslims were wrong
Whether he thinks so or not, Peter Robinson's comments about how much he trusts Muslims were wrong on a number of levels. At best, the sentiments expressed were open to misinterpretation, as the first minister now realises.
And it was regrettable that a man in his senior position should utter such remarks at all, in defence of a pastor who is being investigated for a possible hate crime.
He should have known that his intervention would only add to the controversy.
It took him overnight to accept that he should make some kind of apology to local Muslims for his comments. It did not go far enough, nor was it sufficiently unequivocal, being couched with several caveats. However, the First Minister did the right thing and met representatives of the Muslim community, which was apparently valuable, relaxed and friendly. And they accepted his apology.
Contrary to the stereotypical picture painted of them by Pastor McConnell, Muslims are obviously capable of forgiveness, a valuable lesson for all of us.
But this controversy, which has been making international headlines, is another damaging blow to the image of Northern Ireland as a welcoming community.
We know that race attacks are on the increase and now our only ethnic minority politician, Anna Lo of the Alliance Party, is quitting politics here because of its sterile nature. She has shown tremendous courage and resilience in persevering through racial abuse in the past, and more direct threats to her life recently as a result of the loyalist flag protests.
Since coming to Northern Ireland she has been a beacon of sanity amid bitter feudal politics and she will be a tremendous loss to her party and the community in general.
But this latest controversy may yet have other casualties, as our reports today show that many Muslims — especially those working in the health service, where their expertise is invaluable — may decide to take their skills elsewhere.
These are high-calibre, highly skilled people who we can ill-afford to lose. Loose talk can have wide-ranging consequences, as Pastor McConnell and Peter Robinson may now reflect.