It's time to open our eyes and think of Ireland

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MAYBE the British can borrow from the Boers. FW de Klerk memorialised his gratitude to black South Africans when he announced that the end of apartheid would begin to relieve whites of the burden of their history.

History, however, is also the silence that ricochets around these historic times in Ireland - English history, masked by the legend that the Irish problem is Paddies killing each other.

South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was allowed to vote in his country's general election for the first time in his life this year, has already paid his respects to the victims of famine in Ireland on a Celtic cross in the treeless grandeur of a valley of death. As ambassador of the dispossessed, he lent his name to Ireland's rediscovery of events too terrible to forget but too terrible to remember, the Great Hunger in the 1840s.

Why was Tutu there? Ireland and Africa are connected by catastrophes for which the cause lies in the West. The Great Hunger was one of England's episodes of ethnic cleansing in Ireland. Almost 20,000 destitute and dying people trekked from Louisburgh to Delphi in the west of Ireland to appeal to the grandees for relief. When they arrived, the grandees were at lunch. So they waited. The grandees appeared, replete, and refused them. When they crawled back to Louisburgh, a great storm swept about 5,000 of them into the dark lough which today is host to their memory and to rich anglers who play in their grave.

So many more died on the way that their bodies were later buried where they lay. There was no sign that this was the site of a mass grave - until the Nineties, when a memorial famine march placed the Celtic cross bearing Tutu's inscription that unites their fate with the suffering and survival of the Third World. Tutu and de Klerk, these black and white Africans, have offered the English and their Irish legatees, the loyalists, a model of empathy and enlightenment for these historic times.

The Irish Republic's president, Mary Robinson, made her pilgrimage last month to the mass grave at Grosse Ile, a quarantine island at the entrance to the St Lawrence river, where thousands of starving Irish people died after crawling up the beaches from the 'coffin ships' in which they had been dispatched across the Atlantic. Grosse Ile was the end of the line, and the end of life for thousands of tenants of English landlords - Lord Palmerston, Sir Robert Gore Booth and the Pakenham-Mahons - who threw them across the ocean. A monument was erected there by Dr Douglas, a medical officer who witnessed the tragedy, with this commemoration: 'In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of 5,294 persons who, flying from pestilence and famine in Ireland in the year 1847, found in America but a grave.'

Though widely reported by the Irish media, the English press did not cover President Robinson's pilgrimage to Grosse Ile. Nor did they record an earlier event in her famine trail, the opening of the first famine museum in Ireland in Strokestown, County Roscommon, this year. Her speech then illuminated the invisibility of the Great Hunger. Until the Nineties, Ireland was a landscape of famine graves but no monuments or museums. The legacy of unacknowledged trauma is secrecy and shame for the victims. Rediscovery is emblematic not of Ireland's victimisation but of its new self-esteem.

President Robinson said the suffering of the victims of the Great Hunger deserved 'just as much love and respect and honour as we give to . . . any other defining moment in our history'.

If the Great Hunger is her history, then as an Englishwoman I have to say that it must also be mine. If it is a defining moment in Irish history then it is a defining moment in English history. Why isn't it? We in England cannot know ourselves as a nation if we decide not to know about Ireland. After all, our links are intimate. My kin on my mother's side were Huguenots, descendants of Europe's scattered Protestant dissenters. On my father's side my kin were poor, fleeing Irish Catholics. But I am English. Yet nothing in my culture supports a sense that we, the English, are made of migrants.

England's cultural crisis is its lack of empathy. A nation that once ruled the world laments the loss of power, not the cause of its pain. Our lack of empathy makes the English treat the Irish as if we were still Elizabethans and they were our problem. Half a millennium later, the loyalists are everybody's problem. Our lack of empathy, which has prevented us from joining the trail of President Robinson and Archbishop Tutu, now extends to these legatees. Feeling abandoned and angry, they need to be helped to take responsibility for their past and their part in a tragedy. The white settlers' mantra, 'What we have we hold' and 'No surrender', is not the language that will allow them to enter the dialogue they have dreaded.

Loyalists are entitled to feel wanted and relevant rather than indulged and ultimately ignored. But their present identity crisis is also England's. To make their peace and find their future with those they feared were their worst enemy - like the Boers did with the blacks - they are entitled to England's support in being relieved of the burden of their history. The problem is England's. We must rediscover our responsibility and, with it, what it means to be English.