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British concerned Ireland could 'exaggerate' 1997 Famine apology to draw parallel with Bloody Sunday

Tony Blair received a ‘warm’ welcome for the apology made in Cork in 1997.

Tony Blair: gave symbolic apology in 1997
Tony Blair: gave symbolic apology in 1997
Image: PA

FORMER BRITISH PRIME Minister Tony Blair’s symbolic apology for the Great Famine in 1997 received a “warm” reaction in Irish official circles, official British archives show.

However, a British official also expressed concern that the Irish government might play up the apology to “exaggerate” a parallel with Bloody Sunday.

Blair said the people of Ireland were failed by the Government in London at their hour of need during the disaster, which reached its worst year in 1847.

British Government archives from 1997 were released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI).

A restricted letter from Donald Lamont, an official in the British Government’s Republic of Ireland affairs section, dated 2 June 1997, discussed the Prime Minister’s statement that month on the famine.

It said: “I do not think I could have wished for a better response to the Prime Minister’s statement than that of the Taoiseach reported in your telegram number 178.

“The Irish Embassy have also been warm in their reaction.

“And if (Ulster Unionist) John Taylor is no more than ‘dismissive’ then no harm may have been done in that quarter.”

The humanitarian disaster, which lasted from 1845 to 1850, was prompted by a potato blight that turned Ireland’s staple crop into a mass of rotting and inedible material.

It caused an estimated one million deaths and forced two million starving and destitute Irish people to emigrate abroad, including to the US and Canada.

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Blair had 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”.

His statement was read out at a Famine commemoration in Co Cork.

Lamont wrote afterwards: “The most obvious downside would be attempts by the Irish to exaggerate the potential parallel with Bloody Sunday.

“The situations seem to me so different that that ought not to be too difficult to handle.”

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