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Widespread fears comments could cripple trade links

John Manley Political Reporter

THERE is widespread concern that First Minister Peter Robinson's support for a Belfast preacher's Islamo-phobic remarks could jeopardise trade links with the Muslim world.

The controversy over the DUP leader's backing for Pastor James McConnell comes in the midst of an Invest NI trade mission to a number of fundamentalist Muslim states in the Middle East.

Up to a dozen companies from the north are taking part in the trip, which began four days ago in Oman and before moving to Qatar, two countries where Sharia law forms the basis of state legal system.

In Mr Robinson's defence of Pastor McConnell, revealed in yesterday's Irish News, the DUP leader said he would not trust anybody who "followed Sharia law to the letter".

Countries with Islamic fundamentalist governments are particularly sensitive to criticism, which has prompted concerns that the first minister's support for Pastor McConnell and his sub-sequent remarks about not trusting Islam could jeopardise efforts to build trade links.

In recent years Invest NI and Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster have been keen to highlight potential export opportunities in the Middle East, including to countries such as Saudi Arabia, where Sharia law is applied.

Last year Northern Ireland companies exported £221 million worth of goods to the Middle East.

But it is feared Mr Robinson's comments could undo years' of work building relationships with governments and trade organisations across the Muslim world.

Invest NI and Mrs Foster's department have declined to comment on the impact of the controversy but last night Sinn Fein Daithi McKay said Mr Robinson's "backward and ill-informed comments" could thwart the Stormont executive's efforts to attract investment.

The North Antrim MLA said two of the key targets for export growth were Asia and the Middle East, where the majority of the world's 1.6 billion Muslims lived.

He said the first minister's comments were also offensive to the Muslim community living Northern Ireland.

"The first minister's comments have the potential to damage our reputation abroad," he said.

"These comments come at a time when the executive has been working hard to bring in much-needed jobs and investment. The first minister's comments will severely test the willingness of companies from these regions to do business with us."

SDLP deputy leader Dolores Kelly described the first minister's comments as an "astonishing gaffe" and called for him to apologise.

She too raised concerns about the impact on trade links.

"The consequences of his failure not only to condemn Pastor Mc-Connell's remarks, but to say what he did will undoubtedly have far reaching and long lasting negative consequences," Mrs Kelly said.

"Peter Robinson has made the work of Invest NI extremely difficult -- he needs to think long and hard about his responsibilities and role as first minister and to remember he is in that role to represent everyone of all faiths and none."

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said the comments had the potential to jeopardise trade with the Middle East.

"How can Invest NI go out to countries like the United Arab Emirates and encourage companies to invest in Northern Ireland, when our first minister makes such disrespectful comments about Muslims?," he said

"This is not the image of Northern Ireland that I want to be broadcast around the world."

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