Though it is more than 170 years since our Great Famine — an Gorta Mór — began its evisceration, it persists as a powerful presence in our consciousness. That catastrophe, one that need not have been genocidal had government responded humanely, is not a regular feature in public discourse but it remains a brooding ghost nonetheless.
Like the pain endured by a victim of childhood sexual abuse, it festers until adulthood might bring the courage needed to confront the past. In the meantime, it is too painful for the everyday, so is locked away. Two of the ways we try to assuage that legacy are through a personal commitment to confront contemporary famine and through government programmes aimed at minimising that prospect. Last year our government spent €650 million towards that noble goal — hardly enough in our changing, deeply unequal world.
Yet, despite the to-the-marrow lessons of an Gorta Mór we do business with a state happy to use famine as a weapon of war. Last month, the Arab-Irish Business Forum heard that Saudi Arabia is the third largest non-EU destination for our exports. The entire Arab market is worth just under €5 billion. Food is the mainstay and baby formula is a large proportion of exports to Saudi Arabia. As an aside, this seems a bizarre double whammy: We degrade our environment to produce ever more milk to sell to a society that produces ever-more oil so the planet is degraded beyond feasibility. Our grandchildren’s view of this circular, ruinous addiction, one that assures climate collapse, will not be kind.
A recent UN assessment that Yemen is on brink of “world’s worst famine in 100 years” if the Saudi-led war is not halted was not kind either. The UN warned that at least 13 million lives are in jeopardy. The war, if it is a war rather than a genocide, could not be persecuted without America. Equally, it would be impossible without European arms. The EU Parliament unanimously called for “an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia” after the state murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Germany ended all arms sales to the Saudis — suggesting they have better learned the lessons of catastrophe than we have. They have certainly better learned them than Britain, whose military sales to Saudi medievalists hit €1.27bn last year — suggesting a nauseous hypocrisy hangs over this month’s wreath-laying ceremonies honouring The Glorious Dead.
Yet, there is growing realisation the Saudis must be checked. America’s Senate has moved a measure to withdraw support. Though unlikely to succeed this is a blow to President Trump. Republican — yes, Republican — Senator Bob Corker, said: “We have a problem here. We understand that Saudi Arabia is an ally, of sorts, and a semi-important country. We also have a crown prince that’s out of control.”
Charles Trevelyan remains, 170 years after the Great Famine, one of the ogres of our history. He imagined the market would resolve the Great Famine — pretty much as recent governments imagined it would meet housing needs. If we continue to feed the Saudis, are the starving in Sana’a or Aden justified in regarding us in the light we regard Trevelyan? Business may be business but doing wrong is always wrong.