Letter: Irish famine lessons still to be learnt

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The Independent Online
Sir: Ruth Dudley Edwards' criticism of Tony Blair's "apology" for British government inaction during the Irish famine (3 June) owes more to "revisionist" wishful thinking than historical accuracy.

She would have done better to have consulted the words of the responsible ministers and administrators than rely on the self-deceiving dogmatism of James Wilson. Lord Lieutenant Clarendon repeatedly berated his colleagues for allowing the Irish poor to die in droves; Prime Minister Russell denounced the "crude Trevelyanism" of the Treasury and British middle-class opinion that refused the (relatively modest) sums necessary to purchase relief supplies in 1847-9; and, most damning, Chief Poor Law Commissioner Edward Twisleton resigned in March 1849 on the grounds that "the destitution here is so horrible, and the indifference of the House of Commons to it is so manifest, that he is an unfit agent of a policy that must be one of extermination".

Unfortunately James Wilson's obsessive view that the famine had been sent to reform the Irish character, and that state aid would impede such a desirable outcome, was widespread in British public opinion and within the weak and divided Whig administration. Not all could have been saved, but, in the view of many contemporaries, hundreds of thousands perished needlessly as a consequence of government neglect.

Tony Blair's carefully chosen words, which acknowledge a great historical wrong, should be welcomed. They are in accord with the sophisticated understanding of the meaning of the Famine that President Mary Robinson has done so much to promote in Ireland in the last two years. It is regrettable that "revisionist"' polemics - as outdated and unbalanced in their own way as the ultra-nationalist rhetoric of "genocide" - should be directed against such a positive step towards a new Anglo-Irish relationship.


Department of History

University of Southampton