Just weeks after his comments about Muslims led to outraged charges of racism - and then a hasty apology - Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robin, 65, has claimed that a picket outside a Nigerian man’s home in a loyalist area is not racist.
Robinson spoke after Nigerian man Michael Abiona, 34, found his new East Belfast home covered in banners reading "local houses for local people." The banners were placed outside the one story home at an estate near the City Airport last week before Abiona had even moved in.
On Wednesday morning Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officers removed the banners using protective gloves, placing them in sealed containers as evidence of a hate crime.
Abiona reportedly suffers from osteoarthritis and needs both knees replaced. But when he arrived at his new home for the first time last week he was confronted by four women and a man who demanded to know how exactly he had secured the home from the Housing Executive.
Now Abiona, who has a three year old son, has vowed he will never live in the home because he fears for his son’s safety.
But First Minister Robinson insisted this week that neither the banners nor the picketing locals were racist.
"I'm not sure if this could be described as racism in terms of what the intention of the local people was,” Robinson told the press on Thursday. "Of course local in these terms means very local,” Robinson said.
“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.”
The controversial picket comes as Northern Ireland faces an explosion of race-related incidents, with up to three racist incidents being reported daily. A shocking new report into racism in the North has found that only 12 out of reported 14,000 race hate crimes in region over last five years resulted in successful prosecutions.
SDLP minister said Alex Attwood said Robinson’s comments about the picket have raised more questions about his judgment.
“In respect to this incident 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.
“Peter Robinson's comments again confirm his failure of judgment, bad thinking and wrong attitude. This was a time to be unambiguous in response to those who displayed intolerance. Peter Robinson has again badly failed this test."
Alliance party member Naomi Long expressed her also expressed her alarm and described the banners as “blatantly racist.”
The Northern Ireland Council For Ethnic Minorities (NICEM) also insisted the picket was racially motivated.
Patrick Yu, NICEM’s director, told the press: "What happened to Michael is a hate crime. In his own words it is 'intimidation and discrimination'. Nicem welcome the fact that the PSNI and the housing executive are investigating the incident as 'racial intimidation', but we are saddened at the fact the First Minister has not outright condemned the incident as such. The rule of law in affirming that this is a hate incident must be upheld."
Meanwhile Abiona says his dreams of a new home are shattered: “I have lived here for years, I am local” he told the BBC. “I’ve got a three year old son and we were both looking forward to moving in and settling down. All that has now been shattered.”
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