An Interview with Tyrone O’Sullivan OBE – Welsh former National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) Branch Secretary, and current Chairman of Goitre Tower Colliery
Tyrone O’Sullivan has been around on the political and social scene for as long as anyone can remember. Born in 1945, he is a giant of a man in stature and character. Quietly spoken but not to be pushed around as the police and the politicians in the Thatcher Government were to find out during the miners’ strike in the 1980’s.
Tyrone was instrumental in galvanising the South Wales miners and linking them up with their colleagues in other parts of the UK, calling them to action to strike and picket, which saw some of the bloodiest and brutal fighting outside mines and power stations.
To set the scene before Tyrone’s interview:
It was claimed by the government of the day that the pits were economically unviable. Plans were made to close pits and miners feared for their jobs. They were made promises that they would be relocated but there was an air of mistrust and poor communication from management of the NCB.
The claims being made by the coal board were that there had to be an improvement in efficiency. The miners argued that putting so many men out of work would cost more in unemployment benefits.
Miners maintained they were not in a fight purely with the coal board but with the Tory Government of the day. The NCB had been told to run the industry with less subsidies. The battle was already lost.
The Nuclear power industry was on the increase. Economists provided the hard facts that despite the loss of thousands of jobs placing working men on the dole and in receipt of redundancy money it was a plan, which was to be seen out and see the miners defeated.
Between Ian McGregor who was chairman of the National Coal Board during the 1984-85 miners’ strike and Margaret Thatcher the then prime Minister the plan was put into place, coal was already stockpiled and troops were ready to be used under the order of the defence council authorised by Parliament under the Emergency Powers Act 1964.
Miners Leader Arthur Scargill would not accept that he was on a loser even though the logic indicated it was the wrong time (summer) to begin a strike. The demand for energy was low and they were producing more than they could sell.
The closure of pits with hundreds of years of reserves, the loss of jobs and The UK now depends on Russia for energy.
The argument that it cost twice as much to close the pits than keep them open would be echoed down the decades. Huge costs were incurred for policing alone. National Coal Board industrial relations manager Ned Smith said that in the future more investment would lead to greater exports which would lead to more jobs. Scargill said that the Tory Government had a long term plan to destroy coal mining in Britain. Who was right?
There was also an argument that the police had become politicised as a tool to suppress civil led action or any industrial action. The IRA were in operation in the UK and it is claimed that the police were instructed to get tough and become more vigorous.
There is a belief that Arthur Scargill started a dispute he could never win. John Redwood intervened in July 84. He suggested that the extreme left was mounting a parliamentary challenge to the Government and that between the miners’ strike and the Dockers’ strike it would be rife for destroying the Government’s policies and credibility. There were fears of widespread civil disorder amid a climate of violence.
Mr Redwood put it succinctly writing: “Like many revolutionary strategies to promote instability and tension, the present challenge is essentially a negative one. Its purpose is to oppose and destroy.”
John Redwood played a major role in persuading Margaret Thatcher to stand firm and defeat the miners. He wrote: “There is only one thing worse than presiding over industrial chaos, and that is giving in to the use of industrial muscle for unreasonable ends.
“Given the current NUM negotiating stance – which clearly wishes to see the whole pit closure programme withdrawn and wishes to keep open the main sensitive pits – the negotiating option does not offer anything which the Government and the NCB could find acceptable, or which would enable the Government to come out of the strike with any credit.”
Redwood called for the commencement of a ‘war of attrition’, where the ultimate end was to persuade or force the miners to go back to work and accept the terms and conditions.
An Interview With Tyrone O’Sullivan OBE
Where were you born?
I was born in Abercwmboi just outside Aberdare. It is a beautiful village with lovely lakes. The school was just opposite my house. I never had to worry about catching a bus. It was a mining community. Every house would have been working in the mines. Penrhiwceibr, Mountain Ash, Aberamman, Abercwmboi, there were so many pits everywhere.
What was the community like?
It was an incredible community. Everyone knew everyone. Nobody locked the doors. If I misbehaved my Mum and Dad knew about it within seconds. We didn’t have phones then. They would be telling my Mam and Dad; you know what he has been doing up there. I had to be very careful even with girlfriends. I loved it. Practically all villages you could walk out of your front door and you had mountains. I could walk to three different lakes within minutes. I could walk to three different rivers or be up on the breast of a mountain within 5 minutes. People talk about the valleys but it was a beautiful place to live.
Were your parents political?
It is very difficult to say. Were they politically involved. My Mam was a communist. My dad was Labour but other than that you knew who was the boss in the house. In my house we did anyway. In my auntie Louvain’s house in my Aunty Dil’s house you know Mrs Jones across the road. The bosses were the women. The men might have been out there working every day and coming home pretty tired but the home was run and the discipline was very often by the Mam.
Did people look after each other during difficult times?
There wasn’t a house that you wouldn’t go into if there was a problem. You’d knock the door and say, you okay, anything you need, I’m going down the shop for my Mam do you need anything. That was always the case. We had two gay men in the village. There was no nonsense. They went down the club with my Mam and Dad they were a part of the community. We had an American baby left after the war perhaps the only black person. There wasn’t a problem with that. There wasn’t the stupid racist nonsense you get today. My Dad was an underground worker. They used to call him Dai Slasher because he was fast with a shovel that’s what he told me anyway. He had to learn first aid when he was in work. Anyone who had an accident in the street would come down to our house. You had these things and he became part of the community. You talk about councillors today. If you were a union man in the pit you were either a committee man or secretary or chairman or treasure so you could fetch those skills back to the community. You already knew how to conduct meetings you already knew how to raise funds. My Dad was the secretary of the pigeon club. I carried the pigeon clocks.
Why did you become a miner?
It was automatic from the day I was born I think that at 15 years of age I would be going down the mine. My Dad had been down the mine my uncle had been a miner my grandfather and great grandfather had been miners. The choice I had was I could go to the mine and have £5.10p. If I went to Burtons lovely job just trying on suits £2.50. The mine up the road was less than a mile away and that’s where I went. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Were you tempted to find other work given the disasters, which befell miners and their families?
My Dad was killed in Tower Colliery when I was 17. At 21 three days before my birthday I was in Aberfan. I was working in Abercwmboi we had an area works there we had all the stores there we had wellingtons boots whatever helmets everything you needed to dig those poor kids out the men the bodies. We were in Mountain Ash and at 8 o’clock at night they said can you come over we have cables to run out and we need electricians. I was an apprentice at the time. We went over that night on a Friday night.
We were there Saturday; it was my birthday Sunday. I didn’t need Aberfan to teach me about death. I had lost my Dad at 17. My Great Grandfather David was killed in Maerdy Colliery on the 23rd December 1885 and with him his two sons got killed. Three of them went to work, two sons under the age of 16 went to work and the three of them were killed. Imagine that. My Great Grandfather, my Great Uncles and my Dad all killed in the mining industry. It never stopped me I never doubted that I wanted to be a miner even after my Dad’s death.
I had lived with the history of my Great Grandfather. My Grandfather David Watkins, whenever I said Granf I am going away with the school tomorrow he would say, never plan boy, never plan. I never understood why he said that to me. He said it because his Dad and his two brothers were planning a Wonderful celebration for Christmas Eve in the house. A lot of people were coming to celebrate Christmas with them. It taught me an incredible lesson losing my Dad.
How did losing your Dad affect you and your family?
My Mam once said to me, you know Ty what I miss the most, I never had a chance to say my goodbyes. I never had a chance to say Dai I am sorry for something. That’s what happens when you lose them like that I lived with my Mam and I saw the sorrow and the hurt. In my job as Branch Secretary I understood when I had to go and see a widow. It taught me how to deal with people under the most difficult circumstances. To look at a couple of pictures with them, not talk about pension and coal and all those other things talk about the person first and then come on to it. Even in death my Dad taught me a lesson.
Did the coal board look after you and your family following your father’s death?
We weren’t looked after because there was a fall on the face. My dad as overman it was the safety man’s job and had to go in and assess it. When he was in there a second fall came. He pushed a man out of it, saved his life and he was buried. They said it was an act of God. How was that an act of God? When your underground dealing with circumstances. So we had a lot less than what people may have expected.
Were the owners of the mines ruthless?
It is very difficult for me to say because I only worked under British Coal. I had some wonderful managers and some terrible managers. If I had a hat I would take it off when I went in. If I want things for the men, I had difficult managers. I was sacked twice. Once for knocking off a machine underground because I thought it was going to cause a fire and another time because I disobeyed some rules about working on the weekend. The Union had agreed to work the weekend and I said no we are not working.
Were the valley communities divided at all during the strikes?
I don’t think any Welsh valleys had divisions. I was on strike in 69, 72, 74, 79 and 82 and 84 and 85 we never had those in our communities because you never had anyone going back to work. There was loads of unity. Miners are very difficult people we are strong. We are physically stronger than say people working in an office or something else. The police found it difficult to handle us because we would take a policeman on one to one. So what did they do, they doubled up. So often you’d find yourself outmanoeuvred by the police. I remember one guy saying it’s like the Zulus. The difference is I said they are the Zulus because they’ve got a damn site more than us Welsh soldiers.
Did things get tough for you during the strike?
Of course they were difficult times. I remember being in Merthyr Vale and this copper caught hold of me and started hitting me so I turned around and I hit him and got on top of him. I didn’t hit him I just got on top of him and held him. One of the police sergeants Mike a big friend of mine we played soccer together I could hear him shouting, leave him up Tyrone! I got off him and Mike said Ty go to one side. He could have arrested me. I said, see this that’s where he hit. There are nasty examples where some of my boys were taken in for no reason just dragged off the floor and taken into the back of the van for no reason. I was in Orgreave. In all those wild places. When we went to Orgreave there was 42 on my bus, it was full. At the end of the day everyone on my bus was blooded with ripped clothes because it was a hard hard battle. Again, the police found it difficult to handle us. If you see the pictures they would open up these shields they would be beating on the shields bang bang bang bang, then they would open up and the horses would come out. Why the horses because they were bigger than us. They’d come and run amongst us breaking us up and the police would come behind. It was well organised but they always found it difficult because we were so strong you know.
Were there any doubts about taking the action you were involved with given the power of the Thatcher Government at the time?
There was, when we had a debate down in Bridgend the conference actually voted not to go on strike. Because they said that when we were on strike when five pits were out in South Wales Yorkshire didn’t come out and support us but they did. We were out for five days. I was up in Yorkshire on Thursday talking to Yorkshire pits. What happened was Kent, Scotland they were waiting for South Wales to go out on strike. They couldn’t do nothing until our decision. What did we do we went down, Thatcher had promised us the world we go down we vote in Bridgend to go back to work. I voted and my pit voted not to go back to work.
People used the excuse, well Yorkshire didn’t help us why should we help them now that their five pits are threatened, crazy. I came home that day and I phoned the president of the NUM and I said Emlyn (Williams), that decision is wrong we should be out supporting the Yorkshire miners. He said Tyrone do what you like but don’t tell me. That night I went out and I phoned people. Kim Howells was one, he can deny what he likes. I said I want a meeting in the morning Saturday morning Kim up in Hirwaun. We had seven pits attending, seven pits had voted to go on strike.
We met in Hirwaun and we said righto as from Monday we are out picketing. That’s what we did, we went back home organised buses we had two pits we had Maesteg and Merthyr Vale. I went over Maesteg and within seconds of landing there the men wanted to come out on strike they couldn’t understand how their officials had taken decisions like that. The officials misled them into believing Yorkshire didn’t do all they should have done when I know Yorkshire was on the end of a phone waiting to come out with us. So that’s what happened in the beginning of the 1984-85 Miner’s Strike.
Footnote: On the 29th May 1984 South Wales joined the North East, Kent Orgreave, Yorkshire and Scottish miners in what became known as ‘The Battle of Orgreave’.
Tyrone O’ Sullivan from Llanelli Online on Vimeo. [wpedon id=”27165″ align=”left”]