On April 20-21, 2013, Fordham Law School will be hosting the Irish Famine Tribunal to examine the responsibility of the British Government, under international law, for the tragic consequences of this period.
The Irish Famine of 1845-1852 (also known as the Great Hunger or An Gorta Mór) is one of the most catastrophic famines in modern history. It is estimated that over one million people died, two and half million emigrated within ten years, and almost 300,000 smallholdings disappeared.
Was it the case, as John Mitchel famously (or infamously) asserted, that “the Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine”?
The Tribunal will consider whether the British role during the Famine amounted to either genocide or a crime against humanity. Prosecution and defense teams, including law students from Fordham Law School and Dublin City University, will present their cases before an international panel of judges:
Judge Fidelma Macken, recently retired from the Supreme Court of Ireland and the first female judge to sit on the European Court of Justice; Judge John Ingram, a renowned New York Supreme Court judge who has presided over many high profile criminal trials; and, Judge William Schabas, professor of international law at Middlesex University in London, chairman of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland Galway, and widely considered the world’s leading authority on genocide.
Joining them will be authors Tim Pat Coogan (“The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy”) and John Kelly (“The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People”), along with historians Dr. Ciarán Ó Murchadha (“The Great Famine: Ireland's Agony 1845-1852”) and Dr. Ruan O’Donnell, Head of the Department of History at the University of Limerick.
In 1997, then British Prime Minister Tony Blair stated that “[t]hose who governed in London at the time failed their people through standing by while a crop failure turned into a massive human tragedy.” Does that failure, however, give rise to liability under international criminal law?
Amongst the other questions that will be asked:
· Were the repeated, devastating failures of the potato crop beyond the power of any government, in the context of the time, to effectively manage?
· Was Ireland particularly vulnerable to famine and, if so, why?
· What relief efforts were made?
· How responsive was the government in London to reports from relief officials in Ireland?
· How influential were laissez-faire and providentialist ideologies?
· Did British policy makers take advantage of the Famine to “reform” Irish society?
· Was it only the British government that stood by while Ireland starved?
· What part was played by landlords, merchants, big farmers, shopkeepers and, more generally, the Irish middle classes?