Tony Blair did not write or approve government’s Irish Famine message, documents reveal

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 (Getty Images)
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Tony Blair did not write or approve a message from the UK government saying it had failed to intervene in the 19th century Irish Famine, it has emerged.

It is estimated that around one million people died of starvation and disease in Ireland in the late 1840s after potato blight devastated food supplies.

Some two million more people emigrated, the majority of them crossing the Atlantic to the United States, between 1845 and 1892.

Critics accused the government, which ruled Ireland at the time, of a failure to intervene while its people starved to death following the crop failure.

Speaking on Mr Blair's behalf in a 1997 address to commemorate the famine in Cork, southern Ireland, actor Gabriel Byrne stopped short of apologising but said the people of Ireland were failed by the British government policy.

Mr Blair had been unable to attend the event.

His remarks were written and approved by Sir John Holmes, the former PM's private secretary, previously classified documents published by National Archive in Kew, reveal.

Sir John said he had tried and failed to contact his boss to get the message signed off.

He wrote: "I tried to clear the principle of this with you [Mr Blair] this afternoon by telephone, but you were not around."

Sir John said he was keen to avoid the impression of a "snub" by London and so sent it to the British Embassy in Dublin "off my own bat".

Mr Byrne added in the message: "The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain. It has left deep scars.

"That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.

"Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy."

While political speeches often have input from aides, Mr Blair's was significant for the positive reception it received.

In his letter to Mr Blair, Sir John anticipated the message "may get quite a lot of publicity", though he said it fell "well short of an apology" and merely acknowledged that the government of the day "could have done more" to prevent the tragedy.

Mr Holmes wrote: "I hope this does not cause you any problems. It should go down well with the Irish, and I cannot see anyone here or in Northern Ireland seriously objecting."

Separate documents released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland last year contained a restricted letter from Donald Lamont, an official in the British government's Republic of Ireland affairs section, dated 2 June 1997, which discussed the PM's statement on the famine.

It said: "I do not think I could have wished for a better response to the prime minister's statement than that of the Taoiseach reported in your telegram number 178.

"The Irish Embassy have also been warm in their reaction."

Additional reporting by Press Association

*This article was amended on 3 August 2021. Previously it said that critics had accused the government of ‘not doing enough to help plug the gap in food supplies”, but the criticism was wider than that.*

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