The Troubles & the Tragedy, 1966-79:
On August 27, 1979, in Mullaghmore, County Sligo, on the western coast of the Republic of Ireland, a massive 50lb remote-controlled bomb exploded on board the fishing boat Shadow V, killing Lord Louis Mountbatten, his grandson and two others while they were boating on holiday off the coast. Lord Mountbatten was HM Queen Elizabeth’s second cousin and Prince Philip’s uncle. He was also, at that time, HRH Prince Charles’ great uncle, godfather and mentor. This was the height of the Provisional IRA’s bombing campaign across the British Isles.
Charles later described Lord Louis Mountbatten as the grandfather I never had. He died at the age of seventy-nine and was the same age as my grandfather, also born in 1900. A former collier suffering from pneumoconiosis, Seymour had inspired me to write my PhD thesis on the Welsh miners. I had begun my research based in Cardiff the previous year but was now taking a sabbatical year to take care of the Welsh section of the NUS, whose national office was in Swansea.
On the day of Mountbatten’s murder, I was sitting in my office at 57 Walter Road, Swansea. Although something of a radical republican at that time, I was also a Christian pacifist, like many of my Welsh friends, and had never had any sympathy for the violent republicanism of the Provisional IRA. We were appalled by the barbaric and cowardly act. Towards the end of the year, my Grandad Gulliver visited me with my parents at the large Edwardian house on Sketty Road I was ‘house-sitting’ for a friend’s parents who had moved to Aberystwyth. My family made a tour of the Welsh valleys, stopping at the head of the Rhondda valleys, where Grandad met some of the ‘last’ colliers coming home from the pit, sharing his memories of working at Binley Pit near Coventry with the Welsh miners. They left the valleys in the thirties. Grandad was to die of ‘the dust’ two years later. I dedicated my doctoral thesis to him in 1988.
Dublin & The Disaster in the Welsh Valleys in the Sixties:
Growing up and going to school in Birmingham from 1965, I loved Ireland as much as I loved Wales and the Irish exiles as much as the Welsh exiles who had made their homes in the city. My father had trained for the Baptist ministry at Trinity College, Dublin, during the war, and in 1965 he took us on a beautiful holiday in Dublin and around the Irish countryside. I know it must have been 1965 because I remember climbing the stairs to the top of Nelson’s Pillar before it was blown up by the Official IRA in 1966 (see below). That was the first time I heard the name. I recall that after that ‘event’, at the age of eight, I felt bemused as to why anyone would want to blow up the beautiful tower I had conquered the previous year.
When the pillar was constructed circa 1808, the Protestant Ascendency class who had erected it celebrated. It took 157 years, but the demolition finally happened. For many, the biggest surprise about the blowing up of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin on March 8, 1966, is why it took 157 years. The resentment had run deep. Almost fifty years after the Easter 1916 Rising, an Englishman still towered over every other notable in the city, many groused.
Later the same year, on October 21, the Welsh exiles in Birmingham in my father’s church and in my junior school, together with the whole city, were devastated by the tragedy which befell the Welsh mining village of Aberfan in the valley below the town of Merthyr Tydfil. Twenty adults and a hundred and sixty-six children were lost when a colliery slag tip, soaked by heavy rain, slipped down the hillside above the village junior school, Pantglas, smothering classes of eight and nine-year-olds and their teachers who were just beginning their lessons for the day.
Funds were raised in churches and schools across Britain and Ireland for the relief effort being led by local miners. Still, though government ministers rushed to the scene, The Queen and Royal Family were advised to stay away. At the same time, bodies were still being recovered, lest her entourage got in the way of the search and recovery operation.
She delayed her visit until nine days after the disaster, a delay that was misinterpreted by some as being callous. However, when she did visit, she was visibly moved to tears and overcome with grief, so much so that she was welcomed into a miner’s house to recover her composure. I remember our emotions at this time, as children and parents, as I was the same age as the lost children of Aberfan – almost a whole year group had been wiped out. Twelve years later, when, aged twenty-one, I began my research in the Welsh coalfield valleys, I was taken on a tour of them, which started, appropriately, with the sight of the 194 crosses in the memorial garden from across the Taff valley.
In May 1997, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh planted a tree at the Aberfan Memorial Garden. In February 2007, the Welsh Government announced a donation of £1.5 million to the Aberfan Memorial Charity and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity, which represented an inflation-adjusted amount of the money taken to pay to secure the tip. The money to the memorial charity was used in the upkeep of the memorials to the disaster. In October 2016, on the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster, commemorative events took place in the garden and at the cemetery; the Prince of Wales represented the Queen, and government ministers were present to pay tribute. At the time of the anniversary Huw Edwards, the BBC News journalist and presenter, described the need to continue learning lessons from Aberfan:
What we can do, however—in this week of the 50th anniversary—is try to focus the attention of many in Britain and beyond on the lessons of Aberfan, lessons which are still of profound relevance today. They touch on issues of public accountability, responsibility, competence and transparency.
The Welsh Composer Karl Jenkins recently wrote a piece called Cantata for the Children. In January 2022, there was a call to find a permanent home for the artefacts salvaged from the disaster. These included a clock that had stopped when the tragedy occurred, giving new meaning to W. H. Auden’s Funeral Prayer; Stop All the Clocks.
Two Tongues: Living Welsh & the Language of Princes & Bards:
In preparation for his Investiture in 1969, Charles spent some time at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, learning Welsh and studying the history and culture(s) of Wales under the tutelage of Professor Teddy Millward. The initial purpose of this was so that he would know enough of the ancient language to be able to make the oath at the Investiture Ceremony and, subsequently, to read speeches out loud with intelligible pronunciation. When, as student leaders, we met him at Lampeter in 1980, he admitted that his conversation was limited and that he had not retained or used much of the vocabulary Millward had taught him. Part of his problem was that the formal, classical register in written form was very different to the Cymraeg Byw (Living Welsh) needed for everyday communication and simple conversation.
I had this dilemma during my eight years in Wales from 1975 to 1983. Cymdeithas y Dysgwyr (the Welsh Learner’s Society) prioritised Cymraeg Byw using wlpan (immersive) methods. We were encouraged to learn Welsh poetry and participate in the Inter-College Eisteddfod competitions. Learning poetry and songs certainly helped with the phonetics and intonation of the language in its more traditional forms. Making speeches make sense was a far more difficult task, however. I made my ‘maiden speech’ in Welsh at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon in August 1979, when I was invited to address a tented gathering on the issue of Welsh language student unions. This was in the form of a debate, so I also had to be prepared to answer impromptu questions and comments from ‘the floor’. Using cue cards I prepared in Welsh beforehand with a friend, I navigated the task to warm appreciation.
I also used this method at the NUSUK National Conference in Blackpool the following spring when presenting the Welsh Report. This was always given in English in previous years, mainly because the previous Chairmen had insufficient Welsh. However, our Welsh delegates wanted to make a point about the importance of the Welsh language to them, even though few of them spoke it. Therefore, I was ‘mandated’ by the Welsh delegates to speak for five minutes in Welsh and five minutes in English. As usual in these conferences, on the day, our time was cut to five minutes, so I delivered the speech in Welsh, as required, though only one delegate among the thousands understood what I was saying. The red light went on at the end of the speech, and I sat down. After a short pause, the Conference Chair asked me to translate what I had just said. Of course, my address in English was substantially different in content, but only one delegate knew that. So, in the end, we had the full ten minutes allocated.
Afterwards, an angry Chairman of the Procedure Committee berated me. Still, I calmly pointed out that, in Wales, simultaneous translation was provided throughout our conferences so that delegates could speak and be fully understood in either language within the time available. As Nelson Mandela once said, if you talk to people in a common language they know, you will speak to their minds. You will speak to their hearts if you talk to them in their native language. Charles seems to understand the ‘Mandela principle.’
The Birmingham Bombings of November 1974:
As a teenager, I then experienced the terror of the Provisional IRA at close quarters when they detonated bombs in Birmingham city centre in 1974, killing twenty-one of my contemporaries out for a Friday night rendezvous with school friends. Hundreds of other teenagers were left with horrific, life-changing injuries.
I had been in the burger bar pictured below, adjacent to the Tavern in the town, before attending the regular Friday night Youthquake gathering at nearby St Philip’s Cathedral. Later, I went past the bus stop on Hagley Road, where the third bomb failed to detonate. Then, walking home from a halt two miles further along the road away from the city centre minutes later, I heard a massive explosion.
The 1974 bombing was, of course, an exceptional event. Still, bombing alerts were regular occurrences in and around the city centre, and evacuations at school and work became almost part of our way of life. Nearly every Saturday before and after that, we were evacuated from the city centre stores where we worked due to a bomb alert. One of my oldest school friends, the son of a Birmingham MP and government minister, survived a bombing of his family’s home, along with his mother, who was injured, and younger brother. So we had to learn to live with the threat of terrorism, though not often, as in the city centre in 1974 and on the island of Ireland throughout the seventies and eighties, with its violent, terrible reality.
North Wales; Bangor:
When, in September 1975, I went to university in Bangor, North Wales, I joined The Fellowship of Reconciliation (Cymdeithas y Cymod), a Christian pacifist organisation. I became involved in nonviolent direct action campaigns from CND to those of Cymdeithas yr Iaith (The Welsh Language Society). Having committed myself to a ministry of reconciliation at Iona Abbey in the autumn of 1976, I made friends with many Welsh-Speaking friends and, through them, with some Irish republicans, including a few supporters of the ‘Official IRA’. They had lain down their weapons a decade earlier. I read Irish history, and when I once expressed remorse for Britain’s treatment of Ireland over the centuries, I was told by an Irish historian not to apologise for what the British empire had done to his country. I was not to blame, he said.
In July 1978, a week after my graduation ceremony, I also took up my role as Vice-Chairman of UCMC (NUS Wales). I found myself, once again, addressing assembled academics and dignatories in Neuadd John Pritchard. This time, for the first time, this was at the University of Wales Court of Governors, the assembly for the national federal institution. I put forward a proposal for a federal Coleg Cymraeg with a central Welsh Medium Teaching Board to coordinate the development of courses in Welsh beyond Aberystwyth and Bangor. This was reported the next day in the Western Mail:
Cardiff & Swansea:
Later that summer, I moved to Cardiff as a PhD student on a Major State Studentship. It was to take ten years before I finally graduated, five years after leaving Wales, to begin my teaching career in Lancashire and Coventry. The late seventies and early eighties were years of dramatic and momentous events in Wales and throughout the world, from the ‘devolution debácle’ to the Falklands War. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade that a genuine spirit of reconciliation emerged in Ireland and Britain, in addition to the ‘rapprochement’ between East and West in Europe.
After my sabbatical year, returning to Cardiff, I met some of Official Sinn Fein’s political leaders in Britain as part of their peaceful cooperation campaign with British mainstream political parties and groups. They saw themselves as sworn enemies of the ‘Provos’ as they called them, who regarded the Officials as traitors. They told us they had stored their weapons in case they needed to defend themselves against the breakaway terrorist faction. The PIRA had cells all over the British mainland, including Cardiff, where I found myself in more than one pub in the city where collections were held by them, often under the guise of a ‘lock-in’ concert given by an Irish folk band. They could often be seen around the student unions selling An Phoblacht, their newspaper. Being a port city, Cardiff had always had a large Irish community among whom they hid, as in Birmingham. Occasionally, there would be scuffles between supporters of the two factions.
In Wales, in March of 1979, we had what became known as the ‘devolution debácle.’ As Vice-Chairman of UCMC/NUS Wales, resident in the capital, I was called upon to represent the Welsh student body on the National Steering Group of the ‘Yes’ Campaign. However, the referendum’s outcome was depressing, with a 4-1 vote rejecting the proposal for a Welsh Assembly, which wasn’t established until the turn of the century. This was followed two months later by the election of the Thatcher government, even more of a disaster for most students in Wales, whether full-time or part-time.
The Prince & the Student Presidents: All Roads led to Lampeter.
Among Welsh nationalist students, support for constitutional nationalism plummeted after the Referendum result and calls for more radical direct action multiplied for the first time since the Investiture Crisis of 1969 and the botched bombing of Caernarfon Castle. The friction between Welsh-speaking and English-speaking students led to a division in the student unions in both Bangor and Aberystwyth, allowing English conservatives to take control. In Cardiff, another of the six constituent university unions also fell to the radical right-wing and thoroughly ‘English’ Federation of Conservative Students.
So, when I became full-time Cadeirydd of UCMC (NUS Wales) in July 1979, it soon became almost impossible to hold together an executive and organisation comprising radical Welsh republicans with radical English Conservatives, on the one hand, and the other. There were also further divisions among mainstream liberal nationalists and left-wing Labour supporters. These divisions were most marked in Bangor and Aberystwyth, in the heartlands of the Welsh language and cultural nationalism. Therefore, it was appropriate that ‘quiet’ Lampeter was chosen to host Prince Charles’s visit as the University’s Chancellor in the early Spring of 1980. When he had become Chancellor, replacing his father, two years earlier, the student organisation had called for an election. However, there was no established protocol for the Prince to be appointed, so the student organisation selected a former miner’s leader as an alternative candidate. A campaign followed which embarrassed the ‘Welsh establishment’ in the University of Wales Court, and when what seemed like a narrow result was declared, the numbers of votes were kept secret, sparing the blushes of HRH Prince of Wales. However, the student organisation refused to accept the result or meet the new Chancellor. However, when we received the invitation to meet Charles early in 1980 in Lampeter, we responded in a spirit of reconciliation.
In the town, which the English Conservative presidents characterised as not really on the main road to anywhere, we met as a student’ delegation’, as we had agreed as a pre-requisite, before being introduced to the Chancellor. I had been invited to attend as Cadeirydd of UCMC, which, through its University Sector, was the ‘parent’ body of the University of Wales’ student organisation, also responsible for the control and funding of the Inter-College Eisteddfod, held annually, which included several non-university colleges (my first visit to Carmarthen, for example, was around this time, for an Eisteddfod planning event at Trinity College, from which I later qualified as a teacher). However, the three Conservative presidents, wearing their chains of office, tried to block our agenda for the meeting, which included Welsh-medium education and overseas students’ fees. These issues, important to Welsh-speaking students, overseas students and technical institutions, were viewed by the FCS members as being ‘too political’ to be put to ‘HRH’ the Prince of Wales. In particular, the Conservative government was determined to introduce full-cost fees for non-British entrants and was also rowing back on commitments to a Coleg Cymraeg within the university sector.
Over the previous year, there had been mass demonstrations in Swansea and Cardiff over these issues. We were surprised by the turn-out, so much so that the Cardiff President didn’t bother to inform the Chief Constable about our ‘small’ procession to the Welsh Office, and we both received cautions. After some heated debate, the agenda was agreed upon, though the Tories would not be expected to speak on these issues. In the event, they made it clear that they did not support UCMC’s leadership and policies on these matters, despite two being Executive members of the Welsh student body, not just those of their colleges. Charles showed great interest in these topics in the audience itself. He asked for a report on the progress of the Welsh-medium Teaching Board from the University Registrar, Gareth Thomas, who was keen on developing this within the federal university. Charles also listened carefully to our concerns about the impact of full-cost overseas students’ fees on technical education and recruitment from Commonwealth countries. We presented him with a copy of the NUS/UKCOSA (UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs) briefing document on the issue. In addition, of course, we conveyed our condolences over the death of his great uncle, Lord Mountbatten, the previous August.
After the conference, we attended a reception, at which the Conservative presidents deliberately monopolised the conversation, except for a brief discussion in Welsh with the Swansea student President. As no official photographer was present, one of the conservative presidents took it upon himself to organise a group photograph, from which he tried to exclude me. Charles, however, called me to join the group. As we came away, I asked the FCS’ photographer’ if I could order a copy of the photograph to show my mother, who had been a lifelong royalist. He promised to send one but never did. At the time, I was not overly concerned about this. When the Western Mail sent a journalist to interview me after the event, I was careful not to give out details of the meeting but described how we had all – right, left and centre – been impressed by how carefully the Chancellor had listened to our concerns, and that some of us had even perhaps been a little pleasantly surprised.
A week later, the Registrar asked me to go to the University of Wales building in Cardiff Civic Centre to debrief. He told me that the Vice-Chancellor had received calls from both the Home Office and the Foreign Office from irritated civil servants asking what the Prince of Wales had been told by me over the issue of full cost fees. Apparently, their political masters had received ‘spider graphs’ from him and were not amused! As I turned to leave his council chamber, Gareth Thomas congratulated me on this achievement. The experience taught me that the British Establishment was far from the monolith I had always thought it to be, and I looked forward to Charles becoming King. At the next NUSUK Executive meeting in Euston, the President-Elect congratulated me on this result. But, faced with having their funding cut through the University Grants Council (UGC), the universities implemented the total cost charges. As a result, most poorer overseas students went to Eastern European universities, as we had predicted they would.
However, the FCS became even pettier. When one failed to get elected as my successor, he persuaded a meeting of the (by then) wholly English Student Union of the University College of North Wales (UCNW) during my visit to Bangor to ‘ban’ me from their buildings. This was unconstitutional, but I decided not to take legal action. I consoled myself with the observation that there had been less than two hundred students present, whereas, in the autumn of 1976, we had once mobilised over two thousand (two-thirds of the total student population) students, both Welsh and English, for an emergency general meeting which had had to be held in the College’s grand Neuadd John Pritchard, customarily used only for degree congregations, concerts and examinations. As a result of that meeting, we forced the College authorities to back down over the unjust expulsion of four Cymric (Welsh Society) officers for their alleged involvement in direct action campaigns for bilingualism.
The Dragon’s Tongue:
Returning south from Bangor in 1980, I was stopped by police for ‘speeding’ in the mountain passes through Eryri (Snowdonia). However, the real reason seemed to us because I had a bumper sticker with the ‘dragon’s tongue’ (tafod y ddraig’) on it, the symbol of the Welsh Language Society. The police searched the hatchback of the NUS fleet car, commenting that ‘students must be rich these days.’ They were looking for explosive materials, suspecting my involvement in the ongoing arson attacks on holiday homes in mid-Wales. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, especially as at the spring conference of UCMC, we had passed a motion condemning these actions in uncertain terms, despite some surprising opposition from Bangor delegates. Later, it turned out that the police had been recruiting agents provocateurs to infiltrate and inform on Welsh Language campaigns. Mainstream nationalists had long realised the extremist threat to their legitimate, constitutional campaigns against the ‘holiday homes industry.’ Back in Swansea, I also received an honorary life membership from University College Swansea. This made up for being ‘banned from Bangor’, my alma mater, where I had been the first history student in twelve years to gain a first-class honours degree, and being the undergraduate student representative in the Faculty of Arts.
The Swansea award was partly in recognition of leading a joint campaign in support of the former ‘bomber’ of the 1969 anti-Investiture campaign, John Jenkins. Having gained a degree while in prison, he had applied to study for a postgraduate course at Swansea. He was accepted but suddenly declined when the authorities realised who he was. Having served his time, we felt he should be admitted to the university since excluding him would amount to ‘double discipline.’ We were supported by the NCLC (National Council of Civil Liberties) in this view and by many prominent Welsh academics at the University Court of Governors. There were mysterious suggestions about his connections with Meibion Glyndwr (Sons of Glyndwr), a shadowy extremist group suspected of setting fire to holiday homes in mid and north Wales. However, no evidence was produced to prove such links. Besides, UCMC had established a clear policy against what we saw as a violent campaign against private property, a resolution on this being carried at the spring conference, opposed by only a tiny minority of extremists. In the end, Jenkins was admitted to another college in Wales, but not before the student leaders, including myself, were excluded from the University of Wales Court, which happened to assemble in Swansea that summer.
Despite continued sniping from the Conservatives, we continued to campaign against apartheid in South Africa and in favour of the continuous application of sanctions, which were opposed by the Thatcher government. Peter Hain visited south Wales to help us with the campaign against the South African Barbarians’ unofficial tour in the autumn of 1979, and in 1980 we welcomed the journalist Donald Woods at the launch of his biography of Steve Biko, which he had smuggled out of South Africa, as dramatised in the film Cry Freedom. Returning to Cardiff in 1980, I was elected as an Arts Faculty representative on the University College Senate. I succeeded in getting the Senate to outlaw the violent activities of Sadam Hussien’s Ba’athist supporters against Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents on campus, a decade before the British government showed any interest in what many considered an ‘internecine’ conflict.
Carmarthen, Lancashire & Coventry:
After leaving Swansea and Cardiff in 1982, I moved to Carmarthen, where I attended Trinity College, an Anglican teacher-training college, for a year. While there, I helped to organise a mass rally for CND at the time of the Greenham Common campaign. I had the honour of meeting the historian and peace campaigner, E. P. Thompson, who was the keynote speaker at this.
For the next four years, I developed my career as a teacher in Lancashire and Coventry. However, I returned to Wales with groups of students to participate in the Llangollen International Eisteddfod in 1985, and I gave a paper to a Welsh History Conference in Pontypridd in 1986. Between 1987 and 1990, I returned to more specific reconciliation work in education for peace and reconciliation with schools throughout my own West Midland’ homeland’ and Northern Ireland. I finally submitted my doctoral thesis in 1988, graduating from Cardiff in 1989. By then, as East-West relations eased considerably from 1987, and with the help of the Hungarian Peace Council, the Selly Oak Colleges, Coventry Cathedral and City Council, I helped to develop a series of national and local educational exchanges through to 1992. Between 1992 and 1996, I continued these in Baranya County in southwest Hungary, organising an in-service teacher education programme for Devon County Council. In recent years, these initiatives seem to have foundered with the advent or return of more extreme forms of xenophobia, nationalism and authoritarianism in eastern Europe, promoted by populist governments.
Kingship v Dictatorship; Constitutional Monarchy v Autocracy:
In conclusion, forty years after my five years as a student representative and ‘activist’, from 1976-81, I feel increasingly convinced that constitutional monarchies can provide strong bulwarks against the rise of autocracy and dictatorships. That is not to say that long-established republics cannot do so. Indeed, some have proved more successful in ensuring social and political stability. But others have been swept away far too quickly. In Hungary, for example, three nascent democratic republics have been swept away in the past hundred years. It is perhaps no historical coincidence that monarchies have survived best in western European democracies. However, no two are similar, and all rightly reflect the diverse traditions of their distinct countries. Whilst Charles III may be well-advised to stay well away from party politics and views perceived as partisan, the British system has much to offer to the Commonwealth and other global organisations. In Hungary, HM Queen Elizabeth was much-loved and well-respected. Charles has his own connections across eastern Europe. As far as the home nations are concerned, the Union can only survive as the United Kingdom if its leaders in government, church and cultural institutions are prepared to reform it based on the mutual consent of all four nations. The monarchy can play a significant role in this; under Charles, with his unique experience and established responsibilities in constitutional relations, it has begun well. God bless the Prince and Princess of Wales! Long live the King!