British PM took action to cancel ‘Famine’ event

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Former British prime minister John Major stepped in to stop plans for a service commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Great Hunger in 1996, according to state papers dating from that time.

Major blocked the commemoration amid fears it would boost public support for an official apology for policies which brought about the death of a million Irish people through hunger and disease, and forced another million to emigrate.

According to the papers, discussions were held about an ecumenical service in Liverpool during a visit by then Irish president Mary Robinson in June 1996. The church service would also have been attended by a senior member of the royal family as well as Mr Major.

Despite backing by then British Direct Ruler Patrick Mayhew, the plan was abandoned over fears it would cause unionist anger and encourage nationalist calls for an apology.

“The prime minister is very dubious about taking this proposal forward, and not only in the present climate. Whatever we say, government (and arguably royal) attendance at such a service would look like an apology for the famine and revive debate about whether we owe such an apology,” said Mr Major’s private secretary Edward Oakden in a letter to a colleague at the foreign office.

He added: “The prime minister would rather therefore that the proposal were not for the moment pursued. He would certainly not plan to attend himself.”

Oakden was more direct in private, describing it as “loony” in a memo to Mr Major. “These events happened 150 years ago. They are history,” he said.

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