A group of British historians have described a BBC documentary on the Irish famine as being “astonishingly irresponsible”. Digging for Britain, a BBC series focusing on archaeology, broadcast an episode in January 2022 presented by Alice Roberts that focused on relief works carried out during the Irish famine. It included a claim by an academic from Nottingham University that Britain had rejected giving the Irish “handouts” and that the Great Famine amounted to the “extermination of a people”.
The episode has been criticised by History Reclaimed, which describes itself as a “group of anti-woke scholars” featuring some of Britain’s best known historians including Niall Ferguson, Andrew Roberts, Robert Tombs and Elizabeth Weiss. Two Irish historians, Ruth Dudley Edwards and Liam Kennedy, are also part of the group.
Their mission statement maintains there is “no evidence” to suggest that “facing up to a past presented as overwhelmingly and permanently shameful and guilt-laden is the way to a better and fairer future”.
It has published a 24-page report in which it sets out examples of where the BBC has shown “consistent bias when exploring British history, whether through inclusion of inaccurate or tendentious material or by omission of important relevant facts”.
The report includes a section on a BBC programme on the Great Famine featuring a Nottingham University academic, Dr Onyeka Nubia, who contended that Daniel O’Connell was trying to prevent the “extermination of a people”.
Dr Nubia went on to suggest that the British prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, and his government rejected “all requests for handouts. Simple charity was out of the question”. The relief works programmes were regarded as an acceptable compromise, it stated.
History Reclaimed claims it is “pure fiction” to suggest that the British government was not prepared to provide handouts to Irish people when they were starving. It has also taken issue with Dr Nubia’s belief that it was “worse” to provide handouts than to let the population die of starvation.
A report by the group states that Peel suspended the Corn Laws, designed to keep out cheap grains, in early 1846 to allow for the importation of American maize to feed the Irish population. He was forced to resign from office in the middle of 1846 because of political opposition to these reforms.
The impression given by the programme was that the British government response was one of “heartless and deliberate inaction”. Instead, the report by History Unclaimed suggests, the British government spent one sixth of all its taxation revenues on famine relief and by July 1847 was keeping three million people alive.
The report states: “Dr Nubia appears to be unaware that no serious scholar regards the Irish famine as an ‘extermination of a people’ – effectively an accusation of genocide, if taken at face value – or accuses successive British governments of refusing aid, even if aid proved insufficient in the face of a previously unknown potato disease that caused several years of disastrous harvests in several countries.”
It said the only people who claim the Irish famine was a deliberate extermination by the British government were “extreme Irish nationalists and their sympathisers”. It said this view had been “combated by Irish scholars unwilling to allow their history to be weaponised by extremists” for years.
“For such an accusation to be espoused uncritically by the BBC is astonishingly irresponsible,” the report said.