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 isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.