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Britain’s Blair offers symbolic ‘sorry’ for Irish famine

June 2, 1997

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ For a century and a half, Britain has never offered a direct apology for contributing to Ireland’s potato famine.

So the crowd in the Irish town of Millstreet, gathered over the weekend to commemorate that awful time, certainly wasn’t expecting one when an actor stood up and read a statement by Prime Minister Tony Blair:

``Those who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy. ... That 1 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.″

Blair’s remarks _ the closest thing yet to an outright ``I’m sorry″ by Britain _ delighted the crowd, and many people across Ireland.

The 1845-50 disaster, sparked by a contagion that turned Ireland’s staple crop for the peasantry to rotting black goo, caused an estimated 1 million deaths and sent 2 million hungry Irish to other countries, primarily the United States.

The British government had refused to send large-scale food aid after the first year of the famine because it would cost too much and hurt agricultural prices.

Irish actor Gabriel Byrne read Blair’s statement Saturday to a candle-bearing audience at the Millstreet commemoration. The crowd had expected the highlight to be a live TV link between Irish President Mary Robinson and President Clinton.

``Everything else about the event was pre-scripted, but the Blair speech seemed to be a last-minute thing. It was a genuine surprise,″ said Kevin Barry, who covered the event for Irish newspapers.

``There was loads of applause,″ Barry said. ``It was the first time we’d ever heard anything like this from a British prime minister _ not exactly a mea culpa, but as close as they’ve ever come.″

The gesture set the official seal on 150 years of shared sorrow between the British and Irish _ in the same way that President Clinton hoped to ease the legacy of African-Americans denied treatment for syphilis in the 1950s; in the way that many Australians still expect an apology for their past governments’ efforts to wipe out the Aborigines.

``Blair wants us to be close with the British, and this is the way to do it. Nobody really expected to hear `sorry’ after so long,″ said Geraldine Meenan, 38, one of 15,000 people who attended the commemoration.

The apology was front-page news in Monday’s Irish Times, the paper of record for the Irish Republic, which won its independence from Britain 75 years ago.

``This is a very good statement,″ Irish Prime Minister John Bruton said. ``While it confronts the past honestly, it does so in a way that heals for the future.″

His challenger in Friday’s Irish national elections, Fianna Fail party leader Bertie Ahern, said Blair’s gesture ``would contribute to the reconciliation of the British and Irish peoples, and build confidence in what I hope will be a new era in Anglo-Irish relations.″

Ahern had previously campaigned for an apology from the British.

Famine memories resonate as much, if not more so, with the descendants of Irish emigres in the 1850s _ who might never have left had food aid been available.

The famine sent both of John F. Kennedy’s grandfathers to the United States. The late president’s sister, U.S. Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith, was prominent in the weekend festivities and on Monday laid a memorial stone at Carris Hill, a site outside the city of Cork where an estimated 30,000 famine victims are buried.

``Mr. Blair made a very important and welcome statement, recognizing the injustices caused by the government of the time,″ the ambassador said. ``It’s clear that Mr. Blair wishes to reach out to people around the world ... particularly to Ireland.″

In Northern Ireland, the fulcrum for continued Irish bitterness toward the English, Blair’s statement met a more cynical audience.

While the British and Irish governments closely cooperate on promoting compromise in Northern Ireland _ talks sponsored by the two resume Tuesday in Belfast _ leaders of the British-ruled province’s Irish Catholic minority are still demanding an official apology for ``Bloody Sunday,″ when British soldiers shot dead 13 Catholic protesters in 1972.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, whose IRA-allied party is barred from the talks because of continuing Irish Republican Army violence, quipped: ``Let’s hope it doesn’t take the British government 150 years to offer an honest settlement with us.″