Peter Robinson's words not only exacerbate new divisions but send out appalling message to investors overseas
Last week a controversial preacher attracted headlines after delivering a vicious sermon about Islam, which he described as a religion "spawned by the devil".
Northern Ireland’s First Minister then waded into the debate, defending Pastor McConnell and remarking that, while he would trust Muslims to go to the shops "and bring back the correct change", he would not trust them in other respects.
On Thursday the DUP leader tried to defuse the row, by saying he did not intend to cause any offence by his remarks, but defended Pastor McConnell's right to make the comments.
With the province in the grip of a spate of hate crimes, directed against immigrants from Africa, Asia and eastern Europe, Peter Robinson is flirting with extremism to shore up support in some areas.
The party might claim to be unionist, but the attitude of some of its old-guard betrays a distinctly anti-British intolerance of others.
The First Minister cannot purport to represent everyone in Northern Ireland, including a growing population of Muslims, yet make comments about Islam which are, at best, deeply ignorant and condescending.
In fact, he has made a deliberate decision to represent some parts of the community and demonise others. Already people from minority groups were beginning to express anxieties about their safety and about their futures in Northern Ireland.
Not only will Peter Robinson’s words exacerbate new divisions in our society, they also send out an appalling message to investors who could create jobs in Northern Ireland, particularly those in emerging markets like the Middle East, Turkey or India, which have large Muslim populations.
In a free society, Pastor McConnell had a right to express his views about Islam, irrespective of how misguided they were. However, politicians should be challenging rather than endorsing comments which encourage racism and demonise a group of people based on their faith.
Robinson’s remarks and the mandate claimed by his party and Sinn Féin during European and local elections illustrate that Northern Ireland’s peace process has not yet built an inclusive society. Unless the First Minister and other politicians start to show leadership a new set of hatreds is likely to flourish alongside our traditional sectarian divisions.