The Irish Potato Famine: Genocide?

The Irish potato famine of 1845-1849 is often seen as a turning point in Irish history with many Irish historians referring to Irish history as pre-famine and post-famine. The famine killed almost 1 million and a further 2 million emigrated to escape the lack of food and lack of work. Not only did it led to a significant decrease of the population (estimated around 25%) but it has also been seen as a prominent factor in the desire for Irish independence. While it was a strain of Phytophthora infestans that caused the potato blight, destroying the crops that much of the Irish population relied on, the British government has often been held responsible for the horrific consequences that followed. Without a doubt, the British government was responsible for worsening the conditions of the famine, with their refusal to stop food exports and the slow move to repeal the Corn Laws which kept the price of bread artificially high. This left many Irish people to starve despite the fact there was food being produced in the country and surplus food was leaving the country. With the fall of Peel’s Conservative government, the new Whig Government’s laissez-faire policies worsened the situation; limiting food relief and scrapping work programs in favour for far more limited work programs and placing strict and often unworkable rules on food relief. But can these actions actually be labelled as a case of genocide against the Irish people?

The major issue with labelling the Irish potato famine genocide is dependent on the definition of the term genocide. Definitions of genocide are another debate entirely. The UN definition is as follows:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

The British government did not directly kill Irish citizens nor were there direct attempts at preventing births or forcing Irish children away from their families. However types of acts b and c are more complicated. The British government did not cause the famine; therefore it is arguable that they did not cause either harm or inflict conditions of life to destroy the population. However the lack of aid and the commandeering of Irish resources (the lack of land in Irish hands which caused many to lose their homes when they became unable to pay their rent and also resources produced by the Irish such as corn which continued to be exported) could be seen as acts of both b and c.

The other issue with this definition, and many other definitions, is that of intent. Did the British government actually intend to destroy the Irish? There certainly is no clear evidence, such as with the Holocaust, that there was an actual intention to fully wipe out the Irish population. Cormac Ó Gráda has argued that because of this it was not genocide but neglect. However the British government must have known such actions could, if not would (as they did), cause starvation, poverty, disease and death. Therefore it could be argued that the British government’s actions can be seen as intent.

The genocide question will always be hard to determine unless clearer parameters are set over the definition of genocide, as currently the focus is heavily on that of intent. Regardless of whether the Irish Potato famine was genocide or not, the role of the British government in the outcome of the famine did cost far more lives than the famine would have alone.

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