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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 10 December, 2019
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Irish Famine 'Tribunal' to probe if it was crime against humanity

New York and Dublin law faculties to test the case, under current international law, against the-then British government for the tragedy in which one million Irish people died.

Image: The Irish Famine Tribunal via Facebook

THE WORD ‘TRIBUNAL’ is not without its difficult associations in Ireland.

This weekend, however, two law faculties are conducting a tribunal which will only last two days, have negligible cost to the taxpayer – and will probe one of the greatest scandals in Irish history.

The Irish Famine Tribunal is an exercise being carried out by Fordham Law School of New York and Dublin City University to consider whether the British government’s role during the 1845-52 Famine was a crime against humanity. Prosecution and defence teams will attempt to measure the actions – or inaction – of the then British government against the current benchmark of international law.

In essence, the teams of law students will be testing the claim of patriot John Mitchel who claimed that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”.

The ‘tribunal’ will take place at Fordham University Law School in New York, sitting at 10am this morning and 11am tomorrow.

Three judges will consider the arguments – these include the first female judge to sit on the European Court of Justice, Judge Fidelma Macken; New York Supreme Court judge, Judge John Ingram; and chairman of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUIG and authority on genocide, Judge William Schabas.

Also on the judging panel will be authors Tim Pat Coogan and John Kelly, historians Dr Ciarán Ó Murchadha and Dr Ruan O’Donnell.

As well as examining the state of Ireland’s social, political and economic framework in the run-up to the Famine, the tribunal will ask questions about the British response to the repeated blights, the efforts of relief officials – and whether there was a part played by any other groups, including the Irish middle classes, landlords and big farmers, merchants and shopkeepers.

Keep an eye on the event’s Facebook page for more updates – and for images such as these which evoke the horror of the Famine:

Image: TheIrishFamineTribunal/Facebook.com

The image below recalls the donation from the Choctaw nation of native Americans in Scullyville, Oklahoma to an Irish famine relief fund in 1847. The Irish Famine Tribunal notes that “Contributions came from every manner of organisation, from charitable societies and businesses to churches and synagogues.”

The Choctaw tribe had itself been subject to great degradation and death after its lands were seized by order of President Andrew Jackson. Ironically, Jackson’s parents had been immigrants from Co Antrim. The Irish Famine Tribunal writes:

Perhaps their sympathy stemmed from their recognition of the similarities between the experiences of the Irish and Choctaw. Certainly contemporary Choctaw see it that way. They note that both groups were victims of conquest that led to loss of property, forced migration and exile, mass starvation, and cultural suppression (most notably language).

Increased attention to the Great Famine in recent years has led to renewed recognition of the Choctaw donation. In 1990 a delegation of Choctaw officials was invited to participate in an annual walk in County Mayo commemorating a tragic starvation march that occurred during the Famine. In honour of the special guests, the organisers (Action From Ireland, or AFRI) named the march The Trail of Tears.

Two years later, two dozen people from Ireland came to the US and retraced the 500-mile Trail of Tears from Oklahoma to Mississippi. That same year the Choctaw tribe made Ireland’s President Mary Robinson an honorary chief.

Image: TheIrishFamineTribunal/Facebook.com

This photograph shows Choctaw Native Americans Gary and Dr Janie Whitedeer visiting children at Gaelscoil Cholmcille in Santry in 2007, Dublin to discuss their history and their link to Ireland during the Famine.

Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

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