British ‘policy of non-intervention’ was a key factor in Irish Famine, says President

‘Numerous interventions’ could have mitigated the worst effects of the Great Hunger

President Michael D Higgins listed “numerous interventions” that could have mitigated the impact of the famine. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The "devastating consequences" of the Irish Famine could have been avoided had the British government acted more decisively, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Speaking to mark National Famine Commemoration Day, President Higgins listed “numerous interventions” that could have mitigated the impact of the Great Hunger.

Britain could have prohibited the export of grain from Ireland, especially during the winter of 1846-47 and early in the following spring, when there was little food in the country and before large supplies of foreign grain began to arrive. Once there was sufficient food in the country, the government could have taken steps to ensure that this imported food was distributed to those in greatest need, he suggested.

It could have continued its soup-kitchen scheme for a longer time which was effective for just six months, from March to September 1847, despite it providing food for up to three million people, and proving to be both effective and inexpensive, Mr Higgins pointed out.


“Its decision to cull it prematurely was again a policy of non-interventionism, supporting the Whigs’ beliefs of how government and society should function.”

The remuneration that the government provided on its short-lived public works in the winter of 1846-47 should have been much higher if those toiling were ever to be able to afford the greatly inflated price of food and the Poor Laws should have been far less restrictive from the autumn of 1847 onwards.

The government could have restrained the ruthless mass eviction of 500,000 families from their homes, as landlords sought to rid their estates of pauperised farmers and labourers, the president stated.

“Last, and above all, the British government should have been willing to treat the Famine in Ireland as a crisis, an imperial responsibility, and to bear the costs of relief after the summer of 1847,” the President said.

“In an atmosphere of rising ‘Famine fatigue’ in Britain, Ireland at that point and for the remainder of the Famine was left to survive on its own woefully inadequate resources in a misguided effort to promote greater self-reliance and self-exertion among the poor.”

He said British government policy in Ireland had created the “conditions of such dismal hopelessness, of desperate dependence on the potato crop” in the first place.

“The Act of Union and the consequences of its restrictions, all of which was premeditated and preceded by what were barbarous Penal Laws, laws which were deliberate and methodical in their intent to deprive the vast majority of the Irish population of some of the most basic of human freedoms including religious practice or participation in the representative aspects of civil society,” he said.

“When blight struck, the people of the country were utterly vulnerable, dependent on what would be decided for them.”

In his speech, Mr Higgins also highlighted how 34 million people worldwide were currently in danger of famine particularly in Yemen which, according to the United Nations, was in “imminent danger of enduring the worst famine the world has seen in decades”.

Of 28 million Yemeni people, at least 20 million are in need of food and healthcare, four million are homeless, and millions more are threatened by ongoing military operations.

“These shocking figures stand as an indictment, not only on the protagonists of this proxy-conflict and their supporters, but on all of an international community who can, suffering from what Pope Francis has called the virus of indifference, look on and refuse to act,” the president said.

Sunday’s formal State ceremony included military honours and a wreath laying ceremony in remembrance of all those who suffered or perished during the Famine.

It is the second time that the commemoration has been held in Glasnevin Cemetery. The founder of the cemetery “the Liberator” Daniel O’Connell died on May 15th 1847.

Minister for Culture Catherine Martin recalled that “his last major act in the House of Commons in February 1847 was to make a powerful plea for relief for the victims of the Famine”.

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times