Saturday 15 October 2016


Just about anyone who was alive at the time will remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the horrific news of the disaster which engulfed Aberfan on 21 October 1966.

I was 8 years old, and had spent part of the summer with my cousins not far from Aberfan. At school that day, the teacher turned on the radio for one of those BBC schools programmes, and she hushed us all as the news came through.

The thought of those children just like us in a school not very different to ours was the most terrible and frightening thing I had heard in my short life up to then, and the memory of that day has stayed with me.

What I would not have known or understood at the time was what had caused the disaster and what followed it, although through the years some of the missing pieces in the jigsaw fell into place. For most of us, therefore, Huw Edwards' account on S4C (available for a short while here) of the official inquiry brought matters sharply into focus. An English version of the programme is shortly to be aired on BBC1, in Wales at least.

Edwards was clearly angered and shocked as he re-lived the inquiry, and if you have not seen the programme, I would urge you to watch.

Singled out for their callous indifference to the sufferings of the village were the poisonous creep, George Thomas, then Labour's Secretary of State for Wales, and the cowardly, cruel and pompous Lord Alf Robens, former Labour cabinet minister and Chairman of the National Coal Board.

A very good account of the disaster and its aftermath can be found here. Suffice it to say both George Thomas, since exposed as a predatory paedophile, and Robens ended their lives laden with honours, darlings of the Establishment.

In a final flourish, Thomas chaired the campaign against Welsh devolution, where he rubbed shoulders with David Davies, the far right MP for Monmouth, and our current Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, who once described Italians in a radio broadcast as "greasy wops" and a couple of weeks ago attacked Welsh speaking communities for cottage burning.

George Thomas, John Redwood, Alun Cairns to name but three - Wales has been very badly served by Westminster.

Robens' main concern in the aftermath of the tragedy was to refuse to accept any liability or responsibility for what had happened, and in that he was aided and abetted by George Thomas, presumably with the backing of Harold Wilson and the rest of the cabinet.

At Thomas's direction, funds to pay for the clearance of the tips were stolen from money given by the public to help the victims, and Aberfan had to wait 40 years to get the money back under a devolved Welsh administration, although even then there was no official admission that this was the money which had been stolen all those years previously.

Admirable and passionate though Huw Edwards' programme is, it contains one very serious flaw. Time and again he says that attitudes have changed and that nothing like this could happen today.

He could not be more wrong.

In the 50 years since 116 children and 28 adults were killed at Aberfan, we have seen Bloody Sunday, Hillsborough and Orgreave to name but a few of the most notorious injustices, and there have been countless other cases of official neglect, incompetence and callous indifference to the sufferings of victims of the state and large corporations.

Nobody lost their job as a result of Aberfan, nobody went to prison, nobody was fined. Those who bore ultimate responsibility were instead rewarded and honoured. The state-owned NCB, set up supposedly to be run in the interests of mining communities and the people in general, behaved no better than the worst of the old coal barons.

Thomas, Robens and the NCB fought the survivors every step of the way. Robens eventually apologised, but only when he knew it was too late.

Here is an extract from the same report referred to above, Aberfan: No End of a Lesson:

The insurance staff of the NCB told Robens that £500 per dead child was a 'good' offer, and that only the 'hard core' were agitating for more. On compensation to the victims, the Charity Commission intervened when it should not have done, and failed to intervene when it should have done. It tried to prevent the Disaster Fund trustees from building the arched memorial in Aberfan cemetery, and from making flat-rate payments to bereaved families: they must first satisfy themselves that bereaved parents had been 'close' to their deceased children.

In the sense that the tips have been removed and the mines closed, Huw Edwards is right that Aberfan could not happen again, but the culture of never apologise, never say you were wrong, never admit liability and never resign is every bit as alive today as it was in 1966.

The other lesson to be drawn from this, and something referred to only obliquely by Huw Edwards, is that belated and limited justice for Aberfan had to wait until the people of Wales were given a very restricted degree of say over the affairs of this country.

"Better Together" has never been better for Wales.


Anonymous said...

Tuesday night 10.45pm - English version on BBC Wales.

Patricia B said...

A truly shocking example of lies, deceit and cover up by 'the system'. The only lessons ever learned from such terrible tragedies are 'how to cheat and lie better, how not to admit any fault and how to avoid paying compensation to victims of such disasters.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, the more I learn Aberfan and the aftermath the worse it gets, yet the Valleys still vote Labour and don't blame the party for any part of it.

Swansea University's Martin Johnes also reminds us Gwynfor Evans connected all the dots in 1966 in his Conversation article, another part of the tragedy that been airbrushed from Labour history of Wales