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23 March 2017

Lessons to learn from Meibion Glyndwr?

Lessons to learn from Meibion Glyndwr?

This month saw for the first time the release of documents showing attempts by the UK government to respond to the arson campaign of Meibion Glyndwr. The group targeted holiday homes in Wales from 1979 to the early-1990s and, in all, around 220 English-owned homes were fire-bombed without loss of life.

The contents of the confidential papers were obtained by BBC Radio Cymru's current affairs programme, Manylu, after a year-long discussion with the Home Office in which the production team, using the Freedom of Information process, had to appeal twice against the original decision to refuse publication. The Home Office had argued that the documents would reveal specific law enforcement and national security techniques.

Despite the high-profile nature of the campaign, only one person was ever convicted of related offences – Sion Aubrey Roberts being jailed for 12 years in 1993 – with the vast majority of cases remaining unsolved.

A revealing insight in the documents were concerns raised by a Home Office civil servant in one of the letters about attitudes towards nationalists from police in Wales investigating the arson campaign:

"As a result of my attendance at the last meeting of the committee of chief constables, I was left with some anxiety that the police generally and Mr. [name redacted] in particular, does not understand fully the….distinctions involved in studying subversive and criminal elements within a wide, legitimate political movement. Mr [...] seemed to think that the presence of law-abiding Welsh nationalists in influential positions in, for example, education and broadcasting was a matter worthy of notice by the police."

Former Anglesey MP Keith Best also highlighted the difficulty for police and the political class to distinguish between the range of different nationalist groups that existed at the time, whose aims and objectives differed widely, especially in respect of the use of violence in achieving their aims.

The non-violent campaign group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Cymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), for example, began to focus in the 1980s on non-violent direct action in their campaigns (e.g. paint-daubing) as a reaction against what was seen as ineffective lobbying of local authorities through meetings and conferences. The UK government debated whether this would serve as a conveyer belt, drawing more mainstream Welsh-language campaigners into pursuing violence, or whether it would instead draw people from pursuing violence into the mainstream movement.

Are there lessons from how the UK government and police responded to the Meibion Glyndwr campaign for us to learn today? 

First, according to Dr. Rhys Dafydd Jones in the Manylu broadcast, the police in Wales were too eager to respond to the threat of extremism and, in doing so swiftly, used a "sledgehammer to crack a nut" without properly distinguishing between different parts of the Welsh language movement. Where have we heard that phrase recently? Out-of-school education settings perhaps? We need to be vigilant and ready to respond to governmental interventions that we deem unjust, uninformed and/or illiberal.

Second, the government and police's lack of understanding of sentiments within the Welsh-speaking communities can be compared to high levels of religious illiteracy today. There is a need, through Christians engaging in dialogue, campaigns and advocacy, to fill the gap and provide the necessary understanding. A case study of the Welsh language movement would also be useful in highlighting the dangers of government trying to define non-violent extremism.

For Welsh speakers, the BBC Radio Cymru programme can be accessed here and is available until April 14th.