We must tackle racial hatred in Northern Ireland
The well-known campaigner Yvonne Ridley, who retains impressive credibility in the Muslim world, has underlined the important international implications of Peter Robinson's recent gaffe by mentioning the issue yesterday in Karachi.
During a talking tour about anti-Islam views in the West, she took the opportunity to assure her influential audience in Pakistan that the worldwide Muslim community should not be put off by the recent anti-Islam remarks by Pastor McConnell.
He was initially defended with clumsy words from the First Minister Peter Robinson, who then had to apologise privately to Muslim leaders in Northern Ireland.
All of this has been widely reported abroad, and has given the impression, falsely but detrimentally, that all Northern Irish people are anti-Islam. However Yvonne Ridley has intervened helpfully, and she has been reminding Muslims that people from Northern Ireland are known worldwide for their hospitality.
She has also emphasised the connections between Pakistan and Queen's University which has strong links with Pakistani students, and also the many profitable business agreements with Pakistan, as well as the professional people who are making a significant contribution to society here in Northern Ireland.
Sadly, however, around the same time that Yvonne Ridley has been trying to defend our reputation abroad, there have been more race-hate crimes in Northern Ireland, and this time two Pakistani men have been the victims. The juxtaposition could not be more horrible, namely words of help from abroad, and actions of damaging race-hatred here at home.
The whole situation proves that there is always a considerable price tag on intolerant and thoughtless comments, as well as actions, and that even more work has to be done to try to prevent the image of Northern Ireland becoming even worse in Muslim countries where we do business and where we want to carry on doing so.
The one slightly less grim image from the past few days has been the irrepressible Northern Ireland humour, as demonstrated in Belfast at the weekend by protesters with placards proclaiming 'We are shopping for Peter' – an obvious reference to the First Minister's patronising remark that he would trust Muslims to go to the shop.
The protestors' humour was welcome, but Northern Ireland's unenviable reputation for intolerance is no laughing matter. It is time for a crack-down on acts of racial hatred, and even more support for Muslims and other ethnic minorities here.