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
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.