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Monday 2 October 2023 Dublin: 11°C
Chris Bacon/PA Images Tony Blair in 1997.
# Classified Documents
Tony Blair's 1997 Famine message was ghost-written by aides as he couldn't be contacted
The 1997 speech, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine, did not have input from the then-Prime Minister, files show.

TONY BLAIR’S HEADLINE-GRABBING admission of the British government’s culpability over the Famine was hastily ghost-written by aides, previously classified documents reveal.

The documents, released by the National Archives in the UK, reveal Blair’s then-Private Secretary John Holmes told him that he approved the text of a message that was read at the 150th anniversary commemoration in Cork because the Prime Minister was “not around at the time” the request was made.  

The speech was made weeks after New Labour swept to power in the UK in May 1997, and was widely praised. Blair never saw the text before it was sent.  

Holmes personally approved the approximately 200-word missive, which remarked: “The famine was a defining event in the history of Ireland and Britain.

“It has left deep scars.

“That one million people should have died in what was then part of the richest and most powerful nation in the world is something that still causes pain as we reflect on it today.

“Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.”

Actor Gabriel Byrne read the speech at the commemoration, as Blair was unable to attend. 

In the letter, Holmes said: “I tried to clear the principle of this with you this afternoon by telephone, but you were not around at the time.

“In order to meet the organisers’ deadline, therefore, and to avoid the impression of a snub, I approved the attached text off my own bat and gave it to our Embassy in Dublin.”

While political speeches often have input from aides, Blair’s was significant for the positive reception it received.

In his letter to Blair, Holmes anticipated the message “may get quite a lot of publicity”, though he said it fell “well short of an apology” and merely acknowledged that the government of the day “could have done more” to prevent the tragedy which resulted in over 1 million deaths and forced double that number to flee Ireland.

“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,” Holmes added. 

Separate documents released by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland last year contained a restricted letter from Donald Lamont, an official in the British Government’s Republic of Ireland affairs section, dated 2 June 1997, which discussed Blair’s statement on the Famine.

“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,” it said, adding that The Irish Embassy “have also been warm in their reaction.”

The Great Famine lasted from 1845 to 1852. 

It began after the failure of the potato crop, and worsened when the British Government, who had governed Ireland since 1801, cut relief measures in mid-1847, putting the cost on the Irish tax payers instead. 

Over one million people died and one and a half million emigrated, mostly to America and Canada. 

Before the Famine, Ireland’s population was just over eight million.

Other documents released today in the UK cover the seven months from May to December 1997, and detail how Blair approached the issue of Northern Ireland.

They reveal how Blair held discussions with Sinn Féin in order to negotiate the restoration of an IRA ceasefire, which came into force on 19 July.

In October, Blair became the first British Prime Minister since David Lloyd George to meet Sinn Féin. Gerry Adams joked that he hoped he would make “a better job of it”.

The meeting included Adams, Martin McGuinness, Pat Doherty, and Siobhan O’Hanlon, and was described as “relaxed from the start”.

Beforehand, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble had advised Blair that when he met Sinn Féin he should “keep his hands to himself”, but Blair rejected this advice, as he “had to treat them on a personal basis like anyone else”.

The documents also reveal the good relationship between the then-Prime Minister and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.

Initially, it was thought that the two leaders would not get along as the British Government had liked Ahern’s predecessor, John Bruton.

In a letter to Blair, Holmes described Bruton as “nice, straightforward and violently anti-IRA … as good a Taoiseach as we are ever likely to get from a British point of view”.

The Tánaiste, and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dick Spring, was described as “greener, but not unreasonably so”.

Despite the rapport between the two men, the British Government were reluctant to appear too close to the Irish, with Holmes writing: “We must work closely with the Irish, but we and they do not have the same agenda/interest in all areas. They are not neutral, and neither are we.”

The release of Irish government documents are not expected for another decade under the 30-year rule.

– Additional reporting by PA

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