Nick Wilson, "Political Ecology and the Irish Potato Famine"


As the scientific commission was delivering its report, the second phase of British response to the famine began. Peel ordered 100,000 worth of corn meal from India to be distributed throughout Ireland by the British commissariat department. However, the purpose of the Indian meal was not to provide direct relief to the people, but rather it was to be used as a form of market control, to be sold to keep down famine prices. Donnelly adds, "[the British government] wanted to check 'over-speculation,' that is, the withholding of food supplies from the springtime market by private dealers greedily waiting for prices to rise still further in the summer."34

Peel acknowledged that the system of selling Indian corn to the population would be useless if the destitute had no means to buy it, so he vastly expanded the system of public works to provide employment. To some degree, the term public works is a misnomer, because the works themselves were funded in a semiprivate fashion-the British government would initially pay the entire cost of a particular project but would expect the local county governments to eventually repay half of the cost of the project to the treasury.

Peel's administration fell in 1846 shortly after he won repeal of the Corn Laws, which were a series of import taxes on food designed to protect English farmers from being undercut. His administration was replaced by that of John Russell, who, with Charles Trevelyan as under-secretary of the treasury, set about reducing the level of "excessive" relief of 1845. Thus, the scheme of funding public works projects implemented by Peel was short lived, for after the

34. Donnelly, 50-51.
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