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The Power of State Apologies: The Irish Famine

Authored by Katherine Waite
Published on 15th December, 2021 15 min read

The Power of State Apologies: The Irish Famine

In recent times governments have begun to formally apologise or express remorse for actions of their historical predecessors. Some argue that these collective apologies serve to build, repair, renew, and strengthen bonds between communities harmed by historical wrongdoing, and that collective apologies are meditations in collective memory about the past, present, and future relationship between communities.[1]  Using the example of Prime Minister Tony Blair’s statement on the British Governments role in the Irish famine of the late 1840s, I will discuss the impact of state apologies and their relevance in society. I argue that, rather than a genuine consideration of Anglo-Irish relations from a historical perspective, Blair's apology was a political act, reflecting the time the statement was issued rather than the historic reality of the famine.

The Acts of Union in 1800 were parallel acts of the Parliament of Great Britain and the Parliament of Ireland which united both to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. By the 1840s the Irish famine confirmed to many that the Parliament at Westminster cared little for its subjects in the country of Ireland. Whilst the original famine was cause by a potato blight, the impact of this famine was greatly exacerbated by the British Whig government, who callously studied a policy of laissez-faire capitalism.[2]  The famine became a key moment in the long story of betrayal and exploitation which led to the growing movement in Ireland for independence.

In June 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair issued a statement expressing remorse for inaction by the British Government during the Irish Famine of the late 1840s. There has been much debate surrounding the impact of the famine in Ireland, and to what extent it was exacerbated by the British government. However, with one million dead and one million emigrated, it was certainly a defining moment in Anglo-Irish relations. Blair’s statement was received as a long awaited apology, and therefore, a victory by many in Ireland. Several studies argue that contrition and apologies can be an important way for former aggressors to redefine their self-identities and thereby signal to former victims that they have changed.[3]  As historian Jason Edwards suggests, this apology served to symbolically realign Anglo-Irish relations, signalling Blair’s willingness to proceed with peace negotiations in Northern Ireland, as well as creating an overall political dynamic that broke through years of animosity.[4]  This succeeded, the majority of the contemporary Irish press saw Blair's statement as the long sought after apology refused by previous UK governments. Taoiseach John Bruton suggested that “The Prime Minister is to be complimented for the thought and care shown in this statement.”. A perceived apology from a Prime Minister can evidently promote goodwill and contribute to better relations, in this case it proved to be part of the larger narrative of the successful peace negotiations.

Whilst Blair’s apology may have provided a new platform for political consensus and contributed to better relations, it does not follow that the apology was part of any genuine reconciliation with Britain’s colonial past. As Mark Gibney and Erik Roxstrom suggest, all too often apologies have given every appearance of being an insincere affair, a few soft and somber words have been uttered, then every effort is made to get through the apology as quickly as possible.[5]  In the case of Tony Blair’s statement on the Irish famine, Blair himself was not actually present at the commemoration event in county Cork, instead actor Gabriel Byrne read out the statement. Furthermore, recently released documents from the National Archives have come to light that add weight the argument that this apology was not as meaningful as some had hoped in Ireland. Tony Blair's admission of the British government's culpability over the Irish Famine was neither written nor approved by the former PM before it was sent.[6]  Furthermore, principal private secretary John Holmes considered that this statement actually "fell well short of an apology" and was "no more than a statement of fact".[7] This emphasises the lack of care, importance, and thought given to the history of the famine in the statement by the British Government. Holmes went on to say to Blair “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.”[8]  These detached public apologies, it can be argued, sometimes prevent the offenders from telling the whole historical truth and facing up to the horrid details of what occurred. Partial truths and legal specifics pervade the language of the affairs of the state.  Rather than a historical ‘meditation in collective memory’ and genuine consideration of Anglo-Irish relations from a historical perspective, this could be viewed as lip service to further the political agenda of the Labour government.

Another aspect of Blair’s apology to be considered is how meaningful can an apology for a historic event be when over one hundred and fifty years have passed. Especially due to the increasingly blurred lines between academic historiography and collective memory.

It can be argued that the fact that Blair’s statement was so widely interpreted as an apology at all indicated a pervading sense of grievance determined to find resolution or outlet, no matter how inadequate the force of the catalysing statement.[10]  The collective memory of trauma in Ireland was so great that Blair’s statement, although falling short of a full apology, was accepted. There is certain controversy surrounding the nuanced revisionist historiography of the famine. Historical data including census records from the famine period reveal that although it is not easy to identify a group of winners from the famine, the suffering was by no means evenly shared. Neighbour turned on neighbour as the famine continued and hardship grew. So it is therefore remarkable that the famine has turned into such a unifying force in Irish communal collective memory.[11]  There is a disconnect between historiography proving the unequal hardship from the famine, and the simplified collective memory of Ireland as the victim of English oppression.[12]  During the 1990s famine commemorations faced accusations that the practice of academic history was producing false accounts of the past. These accounts were not in line with the commemorative program and reopened the fissure perceived between revisionist and public history, albeit on a reductive scale mired in political discourse.[13]  Academic history and public folk memory competed for supremacy. 

What cannot be debated is that the devastating effects of the famine were a watershed moment that permanently changed, not only the islands demographics, but also created a collective folk memory of the famine.[14]  The Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) noticed this and began to assemble material and experiences from the famine in the 1930s.[15]  Interestingly, the material collected by the Irish Folklore Commission over the following two decades was distanced, fractious and individual. The results showed that although enough time had passed for the living to feel distanced from the famine, the collective memory of this trauma had become central to Irish Identity and helped fuel the desire for independence.[16]  It can be debated that at the time of Blair’s apology in the mid-1990s, the political gesture mattered more than a detailed admission of historic wrong-doing. As Cormac O Grada points out, the mid-1990s famine commemorations and the collective memory they articulated even got the chronology of the famine wrong.[17]  Rather than an attempt to consider the historical accuracies of the period of the famine and fully assess Britain’s role and culpability, Blair’s statement brought a level of closure to a feeling of collective trauma, and allowed a renewal of Anglo-Irish relations. 

When considering the effectiveness and worth of state apologies for historical events, we must consider whether lessons have been learned from the past. The worth of an apology is limited if the mistakes from history are to be repeated. An official apology performed by representative leaders of a state is not merely a diplomatic gesture for reconciliation but a symbolic act of promise, by which the citizens of the state will commit themselves to the rectification of historical wrongdoings as well as to ensuring prevention of a similar injustice in the future.[18]  The President of Ireland ‘Mary Robinson led the way, arguing that the Famine had defined Irish people’s will to survive [and] commemoration was a moral act, a means of strengthening bonds between present-day Ireland that its diaspora, and of increasing goodwill toward Third World famines.’[19]  To Robinson the apology and commemoration of the famine was in part a reminder that many were still facing those hardships in the modern day. Irish aid is rooted in a legacy of Ireland’s own history of famine and is strongly supported by the people.[20]

Ireland has long been a nation that has understood the values of independence and empathy, but we can similarly assess the worthiness of Blair’s apology by looking at British foreign policy in other countries. The 1997 Blair Government did refocus on increasing the amount of aid given as a proportion of national income, which had halved over the preceding 18 years.[21]  In a paper written by Hilary Benn MP, then Secretary of State for International Development, he describes the desire and determination to improve the lives of the world’s poorest during this period. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour helped to: lift 3 million people out of poverty each year; get some 40 million more children into school; push Polio to the verge of eradication and enable 3 million people to access life-preserving drugs for HIV and AIDS; and improve water or sanitation services for over 1.5 million people.[22]  However, if Blair was looking to a brighter future where he made poverty history, that has not lasted. It could be argued that, at the time of the statement on the famine in Ireland in 1997, Blair’s government were genuinely committed to improving the lives of the world’s poorest, and attempting to avoid history repeating itself. However, it cannot be ignored that actions taken after this apology, by both Blair’s Labour Government and the succeeding Conservative Governments have failed to live up to these ideals. This year the sitting Prime Minister Boris Johnson has faced international criticism due to his decision to cut the foreign aid budget by a third. UK aid to Yemen, one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian crises, was reduced from £197m pledged in 2020 to £87m this year and humanitarian funding for Syria halved.[23]  This is part of a larger trend of the United Kingdom becoming more inward looking and unwilling to critically engage with the legacy of colonialism. In the present day, far for reconciling with our history of exploitative and often brutal colonialism, the government leads the way arguing that it is unpatriotic to question the British Empire and its legacy. 

Blair's statement when he was Prime Minister, the head of the British Government, acted as a vindication of long held beliefs and brought a certain level of closure to the collective trauma cause by the famine in Ireland. However, this does not necessarily result in any critical engagement with historical facts. Rather it was largely a political act that contributed to increased goodwill and allowed for consensus building which ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement in 1999. By the time Blair's statement on the famine was issued in absentia, all of the people affected first hand were long dead. To surviving ancestors these sombre statements can appear to be an empty gesture, especially when juxtaposed with actions taken after the apology. Under the shadow of foreign aid cuts, vaccine nationalism, and arm sales, it can be argued that until the British Government recognises it’s colonial past and takes real long term steps to help those in need, a token apology statement from one Prime Minister will mean little to the millions of people still laboring under inequality, poverty, and oppression. If state apologies are as much about the future as the past, we need to work harder to end famine, come to terms with our colonial past, and contribute to a better world.

Footnotes

[1] Edwards, J & Luckie, A. (2014). Journal of Conflictology, 5(1) http://journal-of-conflictology.uoc.edu/joc/en/index.php/journal-of-conflictology/article/download/vol5iss1-edwards-luckie/1863-7539-1-PB.pdf, p.43

[2]  Donnelly, J. (2011). "The Irish Famine". BBC History. [Accessed 1st December 2021]

[3] Weyeneth, R. R. (2001). The power of apology and the process of historical reconciliation. The Public Historian, 23(3).

[4] Edwards, J & Luckie, A. Journal of Conflictology, p.48.

[5] Gibney, M., & Erik Roxstrom. (2001). The Status of State Apologies. Human Rights Quarterly, 23(4), 911–939. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4489366, p.914

[6] Berg, S. (2021) "Tony Blair's Irish Famine message not signed off by him, archive papers show." BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57894210. [Accessed 1st December 2021]

[7] Ibid. 

[8] Davies, C. (2021) "Tony Blair’s apology for Irish famine written by aides, papers reveal." The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/20/tony-blairs-apology-for-irish-famine-written-by-aides-papers-reveal [Accessed 1st December 2021]

[9] Negash, G. (2006). Apologia Politica: States & Their Apologies by Proxy. Lexington Books, p.10

[10] Mark-Fitzgerald, E. (2013). Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument.

[11] Ó Gráda, C. “Famine, Trauma and Memory.” Béaloideas, vol. 69, An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/Folklore of Ireland Society, 2001. https://doi.org/10.2307/20520760, p.121

[12] Ibid, 126.

[13] Mark-Fitzgerald, E. (2013). Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument.

[14] Kinealy, C. (1994). This Great Calamity.

[15] Ciosain, N.O. (2000) ‘Famine memory and the popular representation of scarcity’, in I McBride (ed.) History and Memory in Early Modern Ireland.

[16] Ó Gráda, C. “Famine, Trauma and Memory.”, p.126

[17] Ibid.

[18] Weyeneth, R. R. (2001). The power of apology and the process of historical reconciliation. 

[19] Robinson, M. (1995). Keynote Addresses on Famine Commemoration. http://www.irlgov.ie/oireachtas/Addresses/02Feb1995.html. http://gos.sbc.edu/r/robinson.html. [Accessed 1st December 2021]

[20] Solheim, E. (2014). Ireland is a world leader in foreign aid to countries most in need. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ireland-is-a-world-leader-in-foreign-aid-to-countries-most-in-need-1.2021843 [Accessed 1st December 2021]

[21] Kakkad, J & Miller, B & Scott, M & Sleat, D. (2021). “International Aid Commitment”. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. https://institute.global/policy/uks-international-aid-commitment [Accessed 1st December 2021]

[22] Ibid.

[23] Elgot, J. (2021). "Boris Johnson risks shock defeat over ‘devastating’ foreign aid cuts." The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jun/02/boris-johnson-risks-shock-defeat-over-devastating-foreign-aid-cuts [Accessed 1st December 2021]


Bibliography

Berg, S. (2021) Tony Blair's Irish Famine message not signed off by him, archive papers show. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57894210. [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Ciosain, N.O. (2000) ‘Famine memory and the popular representation of scarcity’, in I McBride (ed.) History and Memory in Early Modern Ireland.

Davies, C. (2021) Tony Blair’s apology for Irish famine written by aides, papers reveal. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/20/tony-blairs-apology-for-irish-famine-written-by-aides-papers-reveal [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Donnelly, J. (2011). "The Irish Famine". BBC History. [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Edwards, J & Luckie, A. (2014)..Journal of Conflictology, 5(1) http://journal-of-conflictology.uoc.edu/joc/en/index.php/journal-of-conflictology/article/download/vol5iss1-edwards-luckie/1863-7539-1-PB.pdf 

Elgot, J. (2021). Boris Johnson risks shock defeat over ‘devastating’ foreign aid cuts. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/jun/02/boris-johnson-risks-shock-defeat-over-devastating-foreign-aid-cuts [Accessed 1st December 2021]

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Giollan, D.O. (2000). Locating Irish Folklore: Tradition, Modernity and Identity.

Kakkad, J & Miller, B & Scott, M & Sleat, D. (2021). Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. https://institute.global/policy/uks-international-aid-commitment [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Kinealy, C. (1994). This Great Calamity. Dublin : Gill & Macmillan.

Ó Gráda, C. “Famine, Trauma and Memory.” Béaloideas, vol. 69, An Cumann Le Béaloideas Éireann/Folklore of Ireland Society, 2001. https://doi.org/10.2307/20520760. 

Mark-Fitzgerald, E. (2013). Commemorating the Irish Famine: Memory and the Monument.

Negash, G. (2006). Apologia Politica: States & Their Apologies by Proxy. Lexington Books.

Robinson, M. (1995). Keynote Address on Famine Commemoration. http://www.irlgov.ie/oireachtas/Addresses/02Feb1995.htm [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Robinson, M. (1995). Keynote Address on Famine Commemoration. http://gos.sbc.edu/r/robinson.html. [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Solheim, E. (2014). Ireland is a world leader in foreign aid to countries most in need. The Irish Times. https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/ireland-is-a-world-leader-in-foreign-aid-to-countries-most-in-need-1.2021843 [Accessed 1st December 2021]

Weyeneth, R. R. (2001). The power of apology and the process of historical reconciliation. The Public Historian, 23(3)


Authored by Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite

Katherine Waite is Head of Publishing at British Online Archives.


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The British Online Archives blog is a platform for scholars to present their research to students and the general public. The posts cover a range of historical themes and debates from around the world. The opinions expressed represent those of the authors, not British Online Archives or Microform.

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