At last Pastor James McConnell has apologised in public for his outspoken remarks on Muslims. Unfortunately, the tone of his apology was diminished later when he said that his comments on Islam were right and had been blown out of proportion.
This newspaper was the first to report on his original outburst during a sermon at his Metropolitan Tabernacle in Whitewell, and given the controversy and hurt which it caused, his attempt at a public apology is a step forward, if only a guarded one.
The First Minister Peter Robinson also caused great offence in his initial reaction to the first comments made by Pastor McConnell. But since then he has met local Islamic leaders, who seemed satisfied with his face-to-face apology to them. Part of the trouble with public life in Northern Ireland is that long, drawn-out apologies are not as helpful as they could be, and so many people seem unable to say: "Sorry for offending you", rather than saying: "If I have offended you, I am sorry" – not quite the same thing.
Equally unhelpful is the long delay of seven years at Stormont in producing a workable racial equality strategy, and the events of recent weeks have underlined the urgency of putting such a measure in place.
Northern Ireland has problems enough, and despite the genuine warmth and hospitality of the vast majority of our people, we are in danger of gaining an unenviable reputation for racial prejudice, with race hate attacks occurring here roughly twice a day.
Pastor McConnell's condemnation of Islam, and the tone of his earlier language, has not helped, and the continuing rise in race-hate crimes is evidence of a worsening situation.
It is in the interests of everyone, including leaders in politics, the churches and public life, to measure their words carefully.
Northern Ireland has much to offer the world, and we need the input of all our ethnic minorities, who make a valuable contribution to society. It is time that a firm line was drawn under this depressing and demeaning episode, and hopefully lessons will be truly learnt for the future.