I have had the pleasure of working with the Egyptian Society of Northern Ireland (a Muslim society open to all faiths and none) since 2005.
When we first used Stormont, it was – and remains – the first time a western European parliament has hosted a Muslim event.
Northern Ireland has received much positive publicity from these occasions across the Arab world.
Junior Minister Jonathan Bell has attended and Jeffrey Donaldson also has supported the society. Jeffrey, like myself, has visited Egypt as a guest of the society, meeting Egyptian government ministers, all intended to foster good relations between the two countries and the possibility of business links and educational exchanges.
You can, therefore, understand my dismay at the remarks by the First Minister in relation to the disgraceful outburst by Pastor James McConnell.
I was saddened, but not surprised by the pastor; he isn't the first firebrand preacher to lose the run of himself.
But his remarks were clearly designed to promote fear of and, ultimately, hatred towards Islam – whatever his apologists may argue.
The First Minister, Peter Robinson, then stoked the flames by lending the weight of his office in support, implying that Muslims are not to be trusted and are not, therefore, an integral part of society here – something which his own junior minister and a senior MP have, by their commendable actions, sought to encourage.
A lot of righteous indignation has been directed at Peter Robinson, but the real question is this: was there a single person who voted DUP who regretted doing so after they heard his remarks? I hope so, but they are very quiet at present.
It is all very well for the rest of us to demand apologies, but the real challenge is to develop a fundamental understanding that we are all equal citizens of Northern Ireland, regardless of religious background.
Until we do, we will simply continue to recycle unionist leaders who pursue the same agenda of exclusion and intolerance.
- Trevor Lunn is Alliance MLA for Lagan Valley