Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Engage brain, then open mouth

Blunder: Pastor McConnell
Blunder: Pastor McConnell

Ronald Reagan had a way with one-liners, and his observation that in politics "if you're explaining, you're losing" is one of the best of them. Peter Robinson should bear it in mind before he opens his mouth on subjects like racism.

I certainly don't suspect Mr Robinson of being a racist, but he hasn't got a sure-footed approach. In fact, he put his foot in his mouth twice on the issue of race and religion recently.

One blunder was to defend Pastor McConnell's contemptuous comments about Islam as a legitimate exercise in free speech and religious freedom.

He should have left the Pastor (right) to get out of the hole he had dug, not climbed into it alongside him. As it was, both had to apologise and both took too long about doing it.

Apologies need to be quick and generous to have maximum effect, they shouldn't be measured out grudgingly. Scarcely had that row subsided than he appeared on BBC to say that keeping a black man out of a house might not be racist.

"In this particular case, very clearly local people have a level of concern with Housing Executive allocations and those are matters that need to be dealt with by the Housing Executive, indeed even looked at in terms of the Housing Executive allocation scheme" he said.

The context was that Michael Abiona, a partially disabled charity worker, had been too scared to move into a public sector house that had been allocated to him.The poor man found it draped in banners saying "Local houses for local people" and surrounded by protesters.

Anyone can see that he would experience this as racist. Yet Mr Robinson blundered on, explaining the protests.

He said "people who have been brought up and raised and lived in housing estates all of their lives" can't get their children housed close to them, as if that were a human right.

As First Minister, it is not his job to explain away prejudices or give the spurious rationale for attempts to overturn housing allocation on the basis of need.

Damage limitation was required.

Mr Robinson had said that he condemned racism. A statement on the DUP website quoted him as saying "I condemn this protest and any other action which would make people feel unwelcome because of their race or colour.

"I want to see a situation where we are welcoming and make everyone feel part of the community. We must build a respectful, tolerant society and condemn all incidents of racism."

That is what he should have said in the first place, up front and clearly to the cameras.

This would be a comedy of errors if the effects weren't so serious and if it wasn't happening at a period of rising sectarian and racial tension.

If Mr Robinson does make gaffes, he should retract them clearly, unequivocally and in public to limit the damage. Best of all, though, he should only say what is appropriate in the first place.

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