Ex-British PM John Major shelved Famine commemoration
Plan to mark 150th anniversary cancelled over fears of debate concerning UK apology
Starving peasants in 1846 clamour at the gates of a workhouse during the Irish potato famine. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty
John Major cited fears of what the reaction would be from nationalist and unionist communities to the commemoration. File photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times.
Former British prime minister John Major stepped in to stop plans for a service commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine in 1996 amid fears it would ignite debate about a UK apology for its role.
Discussions were ongoing between the Northern Ireland Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office about holding an ecumenical service in Liverpool during a visit by then president Mary Robinson in June 1996. The church service would also have been attended by a senior member of the royal family as well as Mr Major.
Despite backing by then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Patrick Mayhew, the plan was mothballed by the prime minister and his private secretary, citing fears of what the reaction would be from nationalist and unionist communities.
The exchange of ideas is shown in correspondence released by the National Archives in London as part of the annual release of historical state papers. The debate about the commemoration came shortly after the IRA ended a 17-month ceasefire.
“The prime minister is very dubious about taking this proposal forward, and not only in the present climate. Whatever we say, government (and arguably royal) attendance at such a service would look like an apology for the famine and revive debate about whether we owe such an apology,” said Mr Major’s private secretary Edward Oakden in a letter to a colleague at the foreign office.
“Is it sensible to be doing this at any time, and especially during President Robinson’s visit to which it would introduce controversy? The Unionists are unlikely to sympathise; and Nationalist appetites seem more likely to be whetted than allayed. The prime minister would rather therefore that the proposal were not for the moment pursued. He would certainly not plan to attend himself.”
What was said in private?
Mr Oakden had been much more scathing of the idea in private, describing the reasons for it as “loony” in a memo to Mr Major.
“Whatever we say, such a service, never mind your attendance at it, would look like an apology. These events happened 150 years ago. They are history. This is not equivalent to the Taoiseach’s attendance at the War Memorial on VE Day. The Unionist reaction can be imagined. And it would not satisfy the Nationalists. More likely, it would revive arguments about whether the UK should apologise, and add controversy to President Robinson’s visit,” he wrote.
Mrs Robinson was invited to Britain on an official visit by Mr Major, and had lunch with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Edward, preceded by an inspection of the guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.
Despite potato blight being considered the immediate cause of the famine which killed more than a million people and led millions to emigrate in the 1840s, the inadequacy of the British government’s response and export of Irish-grown food continue to be a matter of controversy.