Creationism and political power in Northern Ireland

The row over the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre is more about politics than science or religion.

In 1892, the Rev Canon Alfred Barry gave a series of lectures at Oxford University reflecting on the relationship between faith and science. Referring to the debate about the origin of and evolution of life, he noted that:

Few men, I suppose, now doubt that the mutability of allied species, once considered as fixed and unchangeable, has been substantially proved...No one, again, seriously doubts that in this development the process which Darwin termed Natural Selection is one potent factor.

When Charles Darwin first outlined his theory, in 1859's Origin of Species, some Christians objected to the lack of divine guidance in the scheme. Few, however, still clung to the 17th century chronology of Archbishop Ussher, who had dated the creation to 4004 BC, or objected to the findings of geology that the earth was many millions of years old. "Young Earth" creationism is very much a product of the 20th century. It would have astonished and dismayed Barry, or indeed Thomas Burnet, a theologian who wrote in 1680 that it was "a dangerous thing to engage the authority of scripture in disputes about the natural world, in opposition to reason."

Yet in the very week that 21st century science demonstrated its God-like prowess with the discovery of the Higgs boson, the National Trust stands accused of pandering to Young Earth creationists in Northern Ireland. An exhibit at its newly-opened Giant's Causeway visitors' centre refers non-judgementally to a "debate" about the age and origins of the structure, which geology has firmly dated at around 60 million years. In its initial statement, since modified, the Trust referred to a desire to "reflect and respect the fact that creationists today have a different perspective on the age of the earth from that of mainstream science."

Also causing concern was a somewhat self-congratulatory press release from the Caleb Foundation, a group which claims to represent "the interests of mainstream evangelical Christians in Northern Ireland". Caleb expressed satisfaction that the National Trust "worked positively with us" to incorporate the creationist perspective into the exhibit and suggested that their co-operation "sets a precedent for others to follow". By acknowledging the creationists' claims, the Trust had made the exhibit "inclusive and representative of the whole community."

On this view, the job of the visitor's centre isn't to inform visitors of the known facts, but rather to even-handedly disseminate views. Instead of being people who are either ignorant or in denial about the basic principles of geology, Young Earthers are elevated to the status of a "community" whose views are as worthy of respect as those of "the scientific community". Indeed, it implies that belief in a "young earth" is a means of expressing identity rather than a scientific or religious opinion. But why should creationists be so anxious for their views to be acknowledged or validated in this way?

The important thing to recognise is that this row is essentially about politics rather than science – and, specifically, about the politics of Northern Irish unionism. The Caleb Foundation's claim to being representative of mainstream evangelical opinion may be open to debate, but it certainly has considerable political influence. Its vice-chairman is Mervyn Storey MLA, a senior member of the DUP and the Orange Order, and several other prominent DUP politicians also have close links to Caleb. According to Roger Stanyard of the British Centre for Science Education Storey, who has no scientific background, "appears to have set himself up as an authority on the geology of the Giant’s Causeway."

Another MLA, the late George Dawson, wrote in a letter to a Unionist newspaper in 2006 that he and Storey, along with DUP Westminster MP David Simpson,

...have been pressing government on the need to ensure that interpretation at the new Causeway interpretative centre is inclusive of the views expressed by Rev Dr Greer [a creationist who argues that the Causeway provides evidence of Noah's Flood]... This is a matter of equality and tourism opportunity. In equality terms it is incumbent upon government not to discriminate against this equally scientific viewpoint and those who believe it.

According to Stanyard, "a core of, maybe, around half a dozen very senior politicians within the DUP" have been involved in promoting Young Earth creationism in the province and that "the evidence over the last few years suggests that there are very strong pressures within the party to get creationism into schools." They include Edwin Poots, who in a radio inverview in 2007, as culture minister, proclaimed without embarrassment his own belief that the world was created in 4000BC and accused scientists like Richard Dawkins of wanting to "indoctrinate everyone with evolution". It may not be a coincidence that creationism has grown in importance in Ulster politics as the peace process has advanced. The politics of creationism may partly be a replacement for the more overt sectarianism of the past.

Teaching creationism alongside evolution in school science lessons is the ultimate ambition of these campaigners and politicians. Getting creationism acknowledged in the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre, even tentatively, counts as a minor victory towards this goal. It helps to establish creationist views as mainstream. And it must be acknowledged that among Northern Ireland's unionist political establishment, as in parts of the US Republican party, they are. That is the problem. The age of the earth is of course a scientific question with a clear scientific answer. It's not a religious question. But it is, at least in Northern Ireland, increasingly a political question, and political debates are not primarily concerned about facts but about power.

 

A new exhibit at Giant's Causeway reflects "views outside mainstream science". Photograph: Getty Images
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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.