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Tony Blair’s celebrated Irish Famine message ‘was ghost-written by aides’

The 1997 speech, marking the 150th anniversary of the peak of the humanitarian disaster, did not have input from the new PM, files show.

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Tony Blair was elected PM in 1997 (Sean Dempsey/PA)

Tony Blair was elected PM in 1997 (Sean Dempsey/PA)

Tony Blair was elected PM in 1997 (Sean Dempsey/PA)

Tony Blair’s headline-grabbing admission of the British government’s culpability over the Irish Famine was in fact hastily ghost-written by aides, previously classified documents reveal.

Private Secretary John Holmes told Mr Blair that he cleared the text because the Prime Minister was “not around at the time” the last-minute request was made for a message at a 150th anniversary commemoration in Cork, weeks after New Labour swept to power in May 1997.

Documents released by the National Archives, in Kew, reveal Mr 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.

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Statues commemorating the Great Famine (1845-1852) in Ireland (Julien Behal/PA)

Statues commemorating the Great Famine (1845-1852) in Ireland (Julien Behal/PA)

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Statues commemorating the Great Famine (1845-1852) in Ireland (Julien Behal/PA)

“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.”

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Mr Blair was unable to attend the event, and so his words were read by an actor.

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

Indeed, in his letter to the Prime Minister, Mr 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 an estimated 1 million deaths and forced double that number to flee Ireland.

Mr Holmes wrote: “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.”

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Tony Blair, pictured with his wife Cherie, became prime minister in May 1997 but was unable to attend the Irish Famine memorial event (Neil Munns/PA)

Tony Blair, pictured with his wife Cherie, became prime minister in May 1997 but was unable to attend the Irish Famine memorial event (Neil Munns/PA)

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Tony Blair, pictured with his wife Cherie, became prime minister in May 1997 but was unable to attend the Irish Famine memorial event (Neil Munns/PA)

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 June 2 1997, which discussed the Prime Minister’s statement 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.”

Mr 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.”

The five-year Famine, which reached its peak in 1847, was caused by a blight amongst the potato crop in Ireland, rendering the staple foodstuff inedible.

The British Government of the day, which ruled Ireland, was accused of a lack of action.


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