Last week US President Joe Biden said the actions of the British had been a major factor in his forebears crossing the Atlantic to get to the US.
He said: “When my great grandfather got on a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was, was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the USA? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing”.
But top NI economist Dr Esmond Birnie has now spoken out to say that the famine was not a deliberate act of policy by the British and that famines were not uncommon across Europe at that time.
Dr Birnie said: “President Biden’s statement at the end of last week about those of his ancestors who had been victims of the 1840s Famine may display a limited interpretation of what was actually happening during the 1840s Irish Famine.”
“This matters because there always has been a view that what actually happened was a deliberate act of policy by the British government- population reduction and clearance on a grand scale. It is not clear if the President actually subscribes to this extreme view but his comments may give comfort to those who do think that way.
“In fact, the UK government did not introduce the potato disease to Ireland. At the same time as Famine struck the island of Ireland it is worth remembering hundreds of thousands of people died - or emigrated - in the six counties which would become Northern Ireland.”
He said the population of what would become Northern Ireland fell from 1.6m to 1.4m from 1841 to 1851 and only regained its pre-famine levels in the late 1990s.
“No one should downplay the extent to which what happened in 1840s Ireland was a massive human and economic tragedy but famines were reasonably frequent occurrences in many parts of Europe well into the 19 th Century, for example the ‘Great Hunger’ years in Finland in 1867-68. The Irish Famine coincided with a much less remembered famine in the Scottish Highlands.”
As there was not yet a welfare state there was a limit to what the British state could have done although that is “not to deny that more should have been done”.
He added: “As a private citizen Mr Biden is entitled to believe whatever he wants about his family history but Northern Ireland could face problems if he allows those beliefs to distort his approach to policy. I say this as someone who has argued that on balance his approach to trade and macroeconomic policy has the potential to be more beneficial to Northern Ireland than the policies adopted by his predecessor. That said, the President’s approach needs to be balanced”.
Dr Birnie is a Senior Economist at Ulster University Business School and a Senior Research Fellow at Pivotal NI Policy Forum.
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