THE people of Ireland were failed in their hour of need by the government in London, the British Prime Minister, Mr Tony Blair, said yesterday in the nearest a British government has come to apologising for the Famine.
In a statement read in the presence of the British ambassador, Mrs Veronica Sutherland, at the Famine commemoration in Millstreet, Co Cork, Mr Blair described the policy of the British government in the 1840s as a failure. British politicians had stood by while "a defining event in the history of Ireland and of Britain ... turned into a massive human tragedy."
"Although Mr Blair's statement did not contain a formal apology," he did recognise the "deep scars left by the events of the Great Famine that began in 1845. Mr Blair acknowledged the fact that "one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest, most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today".
He added: "Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. We must not forget such a dreadful event. It is also right that we should pay tribute to the ways in which the Irish people have triumphed in the face of this catastrophe."
Downing Street sources agreed yesterday the statement would be seen as significant. Although Mr Blair did not attend the Great Famine event, he is understood to have welcomed the opportunity to commemorate all those who died during this famine in Ireland and to reflect on the British government's policy at the time.
Several diplomats attended with Mrs Sutherland. They included the US ambassador, Mrs Jean Kennedy Smith.
In his statement Mr Blair also highlighted the part that Irish people have played in enhancing British society.
Remembering not those who died during the Great Famine, and the vast numbers of Irish men and women who emigrated to the United States and Britain, Mr Blair celebrated their "resilience and courage" to forge "another life outside Ireland and the rich culture and vitality they brought with them."