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'Locals-only' protest not racist says first minister

Brendan Hughes

FIRST Minister Peter Robinson has sparked yet another backlash over his comments after saying he did not believe a 'locals only' protest outside a Nigerian man's home was racist.

The DUP leader, right, was speaking after Michael Abiona (34) arrived at his new east Belfast home to find it covered in banners saying, 'local houses for local people'.

Politicians across the north yesterday condemned the protest banners including Alliance MP Naomi Long who described them as "blatantly racist".

Mr Robinson, who represents east Belfast as an MLA, said there was a need to build a "respectful, tolerant society" and any act of racism should be condemned.

But he added: "I'm not sure if this could be described as racism in terms of what the intention of the local people was."

"Of course local in these terms means very local. You might have had exactly the same reaction if it was somebody from 'up country' was moving into an area where local people aren't able to get houses in the locality that they have been brought up in.

"I know it has happened elsewhere so this isn't a new phenomenon."

However, he said he opposed "anything that suggests that people are unwelcome in Northern Ireland because of their racial background or colour of their skin", and said concerns about housing in east Belfast should be raised with the Housing Executive.

His comments were last night criticised by politicians who called for the DUP leader to be "unequivocal about racism".

The latest controversy comes just weeks after the row over Mr Robinson's divisive remarks about Muslims.

Mr Robinson was heavily criticised after he defended a Belfast evangelical preacher who described Islam as "satanic" and said he did not trust Muslims.

The MLA told The Irish News he would not trust Muslims involved in violence or those devoted to Sharia law, but would "trust them to go to the shops" for him. He later apologised for any offence caused.

Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey called on the first minister to clarify his remarks about the protest, saying he had "muddied the waters".

"Political leaders need to be unequivocal about racism," the South Belfast MLA said.

"It is now unfortunate that Peter Robinson, by stating he wasn't sure if the protestors outside the home allocated to Michael Abiona had racist intentions, has in my view muddied the waters.

"Stating the same protest would have occurred if someone moved in from 'up country' is incredulous."

SDLP West Belfast MLA Alex Attwood said the first minister's comments "beggar belief".

"The response by Peter Robinson again raises questions about his judgment, his thinking and his attitude," he said.

"He claims that anybody from 'up country' could have received the same treatment. In effect, he is saying that an outsider to this community could anticipate this sort of response if they sought to live in that community.

"The only proper approach should be for all to welcome the outsider, whether they come from within this country or from outside this country. That should be the measure of our society. Tolerance and welcome should be the hallmarks of how we conduct ourselves.

"Peter Robinson's comments again confirm his failure of judgment, bad thinking and wrong attitude."

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