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Lessons of the Great Hunger

I spoke in the European Parliament last week on Search and Rescue in the Mediterranean and the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on food security around the world.

Coincidentally, I was reading Cecil Woodham-Smith’s ‘The Great Hunger’, which describes the awful impact of the failures of the potato crop in Ireland after 1845, and the subsequent failure of the British Government’s response.

As anyone who has attended or watched a Liverpool/Celtic/Munster/Ireland match will know, Michael stole Trevelyan’s corn, so the young could see the morn. Charles Trevelyan’s villainy was more or less cemented by Woodham-Smith’s book.

Trevelyan believed that “the judgment of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson”. Accordingly, his policies depended on the ‘free market’ which was virtually unknown to the millions of Irish subsistence farmers.

Hunger was followed in many cases by eviction. Landholding was precarious even in good times. As hunger took hold it was followed by disease as typhus spread rapidly through the population, accounting for many hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Families with any remaining resources emigrated either to Britain or to North America. 100,000 went to Glasgow alone. For those that opted for North America, the crossing of the Atlantic was a new peril. Ships that carried timber from North America to Europe typically returned empty. The famine presented a commercial opportunity for the shipowners. Not only would the starving masses provide ballast for the returning ships but they could make a profit while they were at it.

The shipowners were ruthless in failing to provide food and water on these ‘coffin ships’.

Unsurprisingly, the existing population of North America quickly developed a deep resentment of the diseased and hungry Irish arrivals.

Fast forward 175 years and parallels are obvious. Hunger today is not the result of a shortage of food. Shockingly, the EU wastes more food than it imports. That people go hungry today is a market failure and a policy failure. Trevelyan would recognise the policy response today, such as it is.

Hunger of course triggers population movement. As is often repeated, the vast majority of refugees are in developing countries. Nevertheless, EU migration and asylum policy is designed to keep people out and not to provide safe and legal routes to Europe.

Despite this, many families choose to put to sea in leaky boats on the basis that the risk of doing so is not as great as the risk of staying put.

It is clear that Putin’s cynical weaponising of food and migration for his barbaric and criminal enterprise are to blame - climate change is also a new factor.

Nevertheless, I spoke in the chamber last week about how wrong it is that the EU no longer carries out Search and Rescue missions in the Mediterranean. Instead, your tax money is being spent on detention centres (torture centres) in Libya run by militias. And now, the resentment has come full circle as protests against new arrivals proliferate across all parts of Ireland.

So the next time you get goosebumps listening to a huge crowd singing the Fields of Athenry, remember that it is a song about dispossession, hunger and injustice.

And I very much hope that we in Ireland remember that what happened on this island 175 years is happening elsewhere today. I sincerely believe that the protests in East Wall were a product of the Government’s failure to properly explain what was happening there and to show that accommodating asylum seekers is shared out across all parts of Dublin and the country.

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