Thursday 17 October 2019

Tim Pat Coogan: 'From Major to minor in our understanding of famine pain'

Former Tory cabinet minister Priti Patel called for the use of threats of food shortages against the Irish. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Former Tory cabinet minister Priti Patel called for the use of threats of food shortages against the Irish. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Tim Pat Coogan

The unanswered May Day calls sent out by British democracy tended to obscure the significance of the fact that in recent days we have seen two faces of British Toryism.

Both have profoundly affected our history in the past and could do so again, as I will deal with later.

The week also reminded us of an even more profoundly important response to both faces.

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But first let us recall that we had a former cabinet minister, Priti Patel, advising readers of the London 'Times' that Ireland imported so much of her food via the UK land-bridge, the threat of starvation should be used to bring us to heel over the backstop issue.

Then we heard from the former Conservative prime minister John Major, who sagely counselled his own people to use Article 50, so as to create a window that sanity might belatedly becalm the Brexit chaos.

In the course of his straight talking, he also in effect called on the DUP to cop themselves on.

The choice of the two platforms from which the two Conservatives delivered their messages was entirely appropriate. Ms Patel spoke from the columns of the London 'Times', which during the great Irish Famine looked to the day when: 'A Celt on the banks of the Shannon would be as rare as a Red Indian on the banks of the Hudson'.

Mr Major was speaking in Longford to commemorate his and the late Albert Reynolds's contributions to the peace process, which Ms Patel's provocative advice would undermine.

One would have thought that even if Ms Patel knew nothing of Irish history that, being of Ugandan- Indian descent, she ought to have been aware of the British role in the famine in Bengal during World War II.

It cost more than three million Bengali lives, a greater number than died in our own famine. Winston Churchill directed the diversion of wheat away from Bengal to storage in preparation for a planned invasion of Greece.

As we now know the "stout Tommies", as he called them, had other food sources but Churchill, who viewed the Indians as "beastly people" with a "beastly religion" refused to allow the starving to be fed. He said the famine was the fault of the Indians themselves because they had "bred like rabbits".

Similar sentiments were uttered during the great Irish Famine, which was spoken of as "Providence's judgment on the feckless Irish in the darkness induced by Catholicism".

Even the policy of diverting food ships from a famine zone had Irish resonances.

Robert Peel, the Tory prime minister, had taken the leading role in the ferocious Conservative civil war which preceded the abolition of the Corn Laws.

These prevented the importation of cheap wheat to England whose squirearchy enjoyed the protection of tariffs, which enabled them to sell grain at exorbitant prices.

The Tory blood-letting was the worst in Conservative history, that was until the Brexit issue arose. Ironically Peel won the day, but lost his premiership for as the division bells were sounding in the House of Lords, the Liberals ambushed him over an unimportant Irish Coercion Bill.

As we know Peel resigned, with disastrous results for Ireland. The Conservatives were replaced by a Liberal laissez-faire government which refused to interfere with the market.

In our day it was as if Jeremy Corbyn had replaced Theresa May over Brexit, and the opposition proved even more doctrinaire than the government.

Peel had used bankers the Baring Bros to secretly import grain to Ireland, which when released from storage as occasion demanded kept market prices steady.

The Liberals turned back the grain ships and closed food depots.

The Patel, rather than the Major, sentiment prevailed.

For behind a smoke-screen of economic dogma the Liberal cabinet which contained some of the biggest landlords in Ireland (Clanricarde, Lansdowne, Palmerton etc) saw to it that a swarming tenantry was swept from their uneconomic holdings with the aid of potato blight and fever.

It was a "final solution".

Most people in the Dublin area will be aware of the "Famine obelisk" standing on the crest of Killiney Hill.

In fact, the obelisk had nothing to do with the Great Famine but was created as a relief work in the previous century, during one of the many famines of the time, by Lord Mepas.

One would have thought most Dubliners would know this simple fact, but an attitude of colonial cringe made Famine history something of a taboo subject in official circles.

In our day it took an agitation led by a Dublin taxi driver, Michael Blanch, to persuade a Bertie Ahern-led Government to create the National Famine Memorial Day.

The day is still marked by ultra cautious speeches, but it is an advance on silence. Prior to it, attitudes were such that ministers were sent out to tell the diaspora - much of it Famine induced - we should view the Famine as a shared experience between Ireland and England.

I was visiting Canberra, Australia, myself during one such ministerial visit; during it a member of the audience gave a shocking reply to the "shared experience" theory, "like rape" he suggested to a stunned auditorium.

Lastly, but emphatically not least, I would remind Irish Independent readers that amid the welter of Brexitisms this week also saw another response to that "shared experience": The centenary of the 1918 watershed election; an over-whelming vote which led to the setting up of our own parliament.

  • Tim Pat Coogan's latest book, 'The GAA and the War of Independence' is available in book shops

Irish Independent

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