A STORMONT department appears to have considered making the inclusion of a Creationist viewpoint at the new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre a condition of it receiving millions of pounds in public money, documents obtained by the News Letter reveal.
The £18.5 million National Trust visitor centre, which opened in July, received £9.25 million of public money through Arlene Foster’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI).
Within days of its opening, the centre was at the middle of a political and religious storm after it emerged that one exhibit gave space to the views of young earth Creationists, who reject the mainstream scientific view that the earth is billions of years old and believe that our planet is some 6,000 years old.
Last month, after criticism from scientists, the National Trust announced that it had substantially altered the exhibit to give much less space to the Creationist view.
After news emerged in July of the Creationist exhibit, North Down Alliance Party councillor Andrew Muir requested internal documents from several Stormont departments about what involvement they had in securing the exhibit.
However, DETI, which as the department responsible for tourism had the main role in working with the National Trust on the centre, refused to answer his Freedom of Information request for months.
Only on Thursday (hours after he approached the News Letter and we inquired about the issue) did the department release a series of internal emails and memos.
In one of those documents a DETI official referred to the National Trust refusing to accept the inclusion of a Creationist viewpoint in the centre as a “condition” of funding.
The brief email, discussing how to respond to a query about Creationism at the then planned visitor centre, said: “I’ve amended draft to take on board NITB [Tourist Board] comment re National Trust unwillingness to accept Creationism to be included in the exhibition, as a grant condition. Are you content for submission to be submitted?”
DETI has removed the name and title of the individual who sent the email, but it was sent from a DETI computer as it contains the department’s address in the signature.
The News Letter contacted DETI on Friday and again yesterday, asking for details of the context in which the email was sent and whether it had ever suggested to the National Trust that including a Creationist viewpoint in the Causeway Centre would be a condition of receiving public funds.
Despite several phone calls and emails, the department had not responded to those questions at the time of going to press.
The National Trust said that it had never been suggested to it that including a creationist viewpoint at the Causeway centre may be a requirement to getting access to public funds for the centre.
A spokeswoman said: “No. There was never any condition. Everything in the visitor centre was designed and put in place by the National Trust and we were put under no political pressure about anything which was put in the building.”
The documents show that only one person, representing the ‘Causeway Creation Committee’, is recorded to have written to various departments about the issue.
An October 2007 response to that individual states that the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) had “requested that a single reply is sent to you in respect of all your letters to Executive ministers”.
The letter added that DETI was at that point “coordinating the views of ministers in relation to the issues which you raised in your letter before forwarding the reply to OFMDFM for signature”.
An internal DETI memo which discussed how to respond to the letter said that DETI had “received previous correspondence and met with politicians including David Simpson, Ian Paisley Jr, Mervyn Storey and George Dawson to explore how the ‘creationist’ theory, that the Causeway was created by ‘intelligent design’, may be part of a public sector visitor centre. [Name removed] letter is similar in that it requests a Biblical perspective of how the ‘Stones’ were created to be included within the centre.
“DETI has previously sought advice from the Department of Education on the subject who themselves have had correspondence with Creationists who believe the biblical view of creation should be included in the school curriculum.”
The document went on to say that an ‘Interpretative Content Strategy’ drawn up as part of the then proposal for a visitor centre “makes reference to the fact that Creationist theories concerning the formation of the Giant’s Causeway remain under consideration for inclusion within the interpretation”.
The memo said that any decision to accept Creationism within the new centre would have to take account of “wider Government policies” and added: “Geological Survey NI, in DETI, has a particular interest in this matter, given that the creationist theory is faith-based and ignores or misinterprets the internationally peer reviewed scientific evidence of the geological formation of the Causeway.”
A draft reply then provided for signature by Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness said that the possibility of a privately-funded visitor centre [proposed by the developer Seymour Sweeney] meant that the plans for a publicly-funded centre were “suspended”.
But the letter added: “The public sector proposal contains an interpretative strategy in which the Biblical perspective remains under consideration for inclusion.”
It appears that the letter was never sent by Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness because a second memo four months later states that “OFMDFM has now requested a change in the reply”.
The draft reply made clear that Mr Sweeney’s private bid had been rejected and that it would be for the National Trust, who were building the new centre, to make “the final decision regarding the interpretative content in any new visitor centre”.
That letter appears to have been sent to the Causeway Creation Committee in April 2008.
A separate memo that month shows that the then DETI minister, Nigel Dodds, had indicated that he “would like a meeting” with the Caleb Foundation, which had (in a July 2007 letter) requested a meeting with the minister to discuss the Causeway visitor centre.
The identity of the individual from Caleb who sent the letter has been removed by DETI.
The following year Mr Dodds’ then ministerial adviser, Wallace Thompson, would be appointed chairman of Caleb and met formally with Mr Dodds’ successor, Arlene Foster, to lobby for a Creationist viewpoint in the Causeway centre.
Yesterday Mr Thompson told the News Letter that to the best of his knowledge he did not write the July 2007 letter requesting a meeting with Mr Dodds and that he did not recall any meeting having ever taken place.
Mr Thompson, who prior to being appointed Mr Dodds’ special adviser was a civil servant in the NIO, said: “I can say that I have no recollection of the letter being sent, seen or read by me.
“Although I was treasurer of Caleb at that time, because of my role as a special adviser I was not so actively involved in Caleb – I took a complete back seat at that time.”
Mr Thompson said that from 2009, when he had left his role as a ministerial adviser and become chairman of Caleb, he did meet Mrs Foster about the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre and lobbied for a Creationist viewpoint to be included in the centre.