‘It is unfair to compare us to the Taliban’

PACEMAKER BELFAST   2/2/2011'Wallace Thompson pictured in his home on the outskirts of Belfast.'Photo Kirth Ferris/Pacemaker Press
PACEMAKER BELFAST 2/2/2011'Wallace Thompson pictured in his home on the outskirts of Belfast.'Photo Kirth Ferris/Pacemaker Press

IF you saw Wallace Thompson in the street it is unlikely that you would recognise him.

Yet the group which the unassuming 58-year-old heads up was viewed as so dangerous by a leading secularist organisation that it published an 11,000-word report which labelled it as peddling “Christian fascism”.

The Caleb Foundation, which Thompson leads, began in 1998 as an evangelical Christian political lobbying group in Northern Ireland as a reaction against the influence of the ‘big four’ mainstream churches — the Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist.

Thompson has an intriguing CV: a founding member of the DUP, Orangeman, NIO civil servant who drafted a key speech for the Queen, ministerial adviser to Nigel Dodds and now the chairman of Caleb.

The British Centre for Science Education savaged him in a report last year which contained the heading “Why everyone should fear the Caleb foundation”.

It paints a fairly lurid picture of a fundamentalist Christian lobby group with “tentacles all over the place”, aiming to make Northern Ireland a “fundamentalist Protestant theocracy”.

Thompson is aware of the article and seems as bemused by the piece as its authors are angered by him. The Caleb foundation represents a limited number of Ulster Protestants, something which Thompson in fact volunteers. Indeed, it is because they are a small minority that they should be looked after, he argues.

Its membership stretches across many of the smaller Protestant denominations — Independent Methodist, Elim, Evangelical Presbyterian, Congregational, Reformed Presbyterian and some Baptist churches, but the largest single denomination it represents is the Free Presbyterian Church.

Despite its small numbers it has significant clout in sections of the DUP hierarchy. Asked how influential the group is, Thompson says: “Well, I suppose any organisation likes to think that it’s fairly influential. I don’t know ... how influential we are is for others to judge.

“We have to admit that society is becoming more and more secular and the task of holding to biblical standards in society is now regarded as on the margins and extreme. But we have a duty to be faithful to our own beliefs. The views that we would promote are not some sort of extreme, militant, fundamentalist things.

“We’ve been called the ‘Caleban’ — I’m not sure how that actually happened, whether some of our members used that as a joke or whether it came from some other source, I don’t know. You can smile wryly at it, but it’s a wee bit unfair that we’re compared to the fundamentalists of the Taliban.”

Given his own DUP membership and the presence of DUP figures Mervyn Storey and David McConaghie on its board, the group has been portrayed as an offshoot of the party, a perception reinforced by its lobbying of two DUP ministers to introduce creationism at the Giants Causeway visitor centre and Ulster Museum.

But Thompson insists that Caleb contains diverse political views and makes clear that it will not be a vehicle for uncritical support of the DUP.

Sitting in his east Belfast home, not far from Stormont’s grand halls, he says that the increasing liberalisation of politics in Northern Ireland concerns many of Caleb’s supporters.

“I think that the political life of our province is in many ways a reflection of the changing nature of society in Northern Ireland. We would have concerns that politics [should not] drift away too far from Ulster’s historic Christian foundations, in fact we would like to return to those foundations, but we accept reality: we are where we are.

“There are times when we feel we have to lobby and that’s what we seek to do and we will make our case known if we feel there is a slipping in that those who govern us have a responsibility to govern wisely under God.”

The breakdown of family life “greatly concerns” the organisation: “There is something badly wrong with society: it is out of synch with itself.

“We’re accused sometimes of being very hardline on family values but those things are the bedrock that create a stable society and as we move out of conflict into a more normal society, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

“People say ‘Religion was the cause of the Troubles ... those hardline views of the Protestants and so on, they have to go as well now.’ That’s part of what we find — the views that we hold are regarded as a symptom of a problem which is now being solved and, therefore, we move on.

“None of us is perfect, but there are certain core values that you throw out at your peril, that society throws out at its peril. That’s where Caleb sees itself as being the watchman.”

In person, Thompson seems more humble and self-aware than the popular caricature of a Bible-thumping zealot.

He says: “No evangelical should ever adopt a Pharisaical attitude to life of saying ‘Look at how great I am and how dreadful others are’ — that is the road to pride and arrogance,” but concedes: “Perhaps our perception as evangelical Christians, evangelical Protestants, has been that type of image which we have to look at as well ... mistakes have been made by Caleb, mistakes will be made by me personally and down through the years by church and state in Northern Ireland.”

One of the group’s campaigns was to get more representation by evangelical churches on BBC Northern Ireland, something he admits was partly due to the churches’ “pietistic mindset, which can be part and parcel of evangelicalism”.

He insists that the group is not “anti-culture, anti-the arts, anti-science”, and points out that many of its positions on issues such as creationism or Sunday trading are historical, not new.

Thompson says that the group’s opposition to a further relaxation of Sunday trading laws — as proposed by the social development minister Alex Attwood — is founded not just in its belief of the workless Sabbath, but also practical considerations, such as those of small businesses and families.

He then adds: “The other area is the rights of Christian shopworkers and the underlying pressure to work on a Sunday.

“It would also further erode what little family time there is if mum or dad has to go out to work in a shop.”

Two years ago, his on-air comment in a radio interview that the Pope was the anti-Christ stirred controversy while he was an adviser to Nigel Dodds in 2008 at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

Asked whether he regrets using those words, he says: “That was said in the context of [Thompson being] the secretary of the Evangelical Protestant Society, it was in the context of a radio interview where I was asked on to talk about the sale of rosary beads in a Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin and then I was probed on a number of other issues.

“I didn’t go on the radio with a desire to offend anyone ... I was asked whether the Pope was the prince of darkness and I said ‘No’, going on to say what I believed him to be, quoting from the subordinate standards and so on.

“I don’t regret the line that I took, but it’s not a Caleb matter. Caleb does not campaign on those sorts of issues.”

In an earlier life, while at the NIO he drafted the Queen’s speech for the conferring of the George Cross on the RUC, something which he says was “a personal moment of some pride”.

To this day, many unionists see the NIO as a hostile department. So what was it like for a founding member of the DUP in what the UUP peer Lord Laird has described as “a nest of vipers”?

“I think that’s probably a perception that’s been over-hyped,” he says. “I found it fine. I made a lot of good friends, I was able to play to my strengths, I suppose, in policy development.

“In some ways there was the NIO core, which drove the political agenda and constitutional stuff, and then there was the old ministry of home affairs really which would have done criminal justice and policing issues, where I spent most of my time. I personally found no cause for any complaint and I enjoyed it.”