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Enter the Aber Dragon!

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Y Draig Goch: breathing fire (Photo: RtP)

Y Draig Goch: breathing fire (Photo: RtP)

A DRAGON from Aberystwyth was in the forefront of the occupation of an opencast coalmine near Merthyr Tydfil last week.

Pictures of ‘y ddraig goch’ dominated days of intensive global media coverage of the action at the 11 million tonne Ffos-y-Frân mine.

The story first broke in the UK when The Herald previewed the occupation.

Inside the dragon were Mike Fincken from Aberystwyth and Ian O’Reilly from Lampeter.

On the eve of Assembly elections, they were taking part in the occupation to demand an end to coal because of the impact that burning fossil fuels has on climate change.

The occupation and a four-day camp was organised by Reclaim the Power (RtP). This network joined forces with local residents the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG) who have been opposing the mine because of its visual impact, dust and noise pollution since 2004.

Led by the dragon, more than threehundred people dressed in red boiler suits drew a line across the mine to symbolise that carbon emissions are exceeding viable limits for future life on Earth. Alternately singing, dancing and playing football, protesters nonviolently closed the mine for twelve hours. South Wales police made no arrests.

The RtP camp was an impressive feat of organisation. For four-days on a bitterly cold hill-top three-hundred people made use of marquees and geodesic domes for meetings and workshops, enjoyed food prepared by chef from Cardiff, had all the energy they needed generated by a small wind turbine and an array of photovoltaic panels, and made use of commodious and virtually odourless compost toilets.

Mike Fincken was most impressed with the food: “The only thing at this event that was better than the direct action we took was the food we ate, fresh, colourful, delicious and piping hot vegan cuisine.”

Why they did it

Ian O’Reilly told The Herald why he had been a part of the occupation: “Because I had heard of the struggles that the Ffos-y-Frân residents were facing before, but it wasn’t until I started looking at the pictures and reading about it that I realized just how big the destruction was, and how badly the people around there had been treated.

“I went to the Reclaim the Power Camp because I love the countryside, and we have to get out there and protect it – whether it’s outside the door or a couple of hours away. Otherwise big companies are going to keep on destroying it, leaving us with nothing.”

Mike Fincken told us why he was there: “To shut down the largest opencast coal mine in the UK. This was a local protest with an international audience. It was also the first action of Groundswell a series of international actions planned to increase the call for climate justice in 2016.

“Last year I was inspired by ‘Ende Gelände’ where fifteen hundred people occupied an open-cast mine in Germany. Ende Gelände had in turn been inspired by previous actions at Ffos-y-Frân.”

Best moment?

Mike Fincken recalls that his: “Best moment came when I was asked to be the head of the dragon. I was a little anxious that I would be strong enough to carry it off all day but I didn’t hesitate to accept the challenge.

“I did not expect that I would end up leading 300 people in serpentine fashion down into the deep centre of the mine!” For Ian O’Reilly: ‘All of my best moments were about people and that sense of community.

“Down in the centre of the mine, dancing with the dragon and singing with drummers and watching people play a game of football made me appreciate what we had managed to do: In halting a dangerous activity, we had also brought people together.”

Worst moment?

Ian and Mike were in agreement about their worst moment during the camp. Ian told The Herald that: “Waking up to find your tent covered with frost in May wasn’t pleasant, but I would have to say that my worst moment was seeing all the rubbish tipped out on the sides of the roads up near the common and Rhaslas Reservoir on the way to the camp.

“It was a really disheartening moment and sort of captured everything that we were there to try and turnaround.”

Mike added: “I was shocked by the mass of fly-tipped garbage at the side of the road outside of Merthyr Tydfil. Over the long weekend people from the camp made an effort to collect it.

“Office chairs, fenders, pipes, decaying bags filled with trash and a lot of rusty wire. We called the council to take it away but their truck wasn’t big enough and it had to do two runs.”

It is striking that, knowing about the climate change associated with coal and confronted by a filthy great hole in the ground covering 900 acres, Ian and Mike were most shocked by fly-tipping.

To obtain initial planning permission Ffos-y-Frân actually masqueraded as a land reclamation scheme. Merthyr common has long been a notorious site for fly-tipping. Despite a commitment from the developers of Ffos-y-Frân to clean it up, the practice continues unabated.

This in an area of potentially outstanding natural beauty on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, a renowned tourist destination. UVAG and RtP will revisit the common in June to organise a major clean-up.

What was achieved?

Mike told the Herald: “Three-hundred people took a dragon into UK’s largest opencast coal mine and shut it down. We achieved international coverage in the first wave of the Groundswell movement for 2016.

“For three days we were the top story in Wales. We brought protest home and showed that it is simple, fun and most importantly that it is carried out by ordinary people. Last year was the hottest on record.

“Climate change is talked about on an academic level, but in direct action there is the opportunity for ordinary people like myself to do something about it.”

Ian added: “I’d like to think that somehow we managed to reach the workers we saw and met. That maybe they appreciated that we were doing this for them, their families and their jobs.”

The politics of coal

With Aberthaw power station, the main market for coal from Ffos-y-Frân on its last legs, the end of opencast mining in Wales may not be so far down the line.

Plaid Cymru is committed to no new opencast, while the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party both made election pledges to produce all the nation’s electricity from renewable sources.

Labour’s commitment is less quantifiable, with a vague manifesto pledge to develop more renewable energy projects. While the Conservatives are more sceptical on climate change, UKIP seeks to cut Welsh government spending on climate change altogether.

Only the Green Party found time to actively support the Reclaim the Power Camp as part of a busy election campaign. For all their efforts, they were rewarded by gaining no seats in the Assembly.

Party leader Natalie Bennet visited the camp together with Wales leader Alice Hooker-Stroud, who said: “Fossil fuels must stay in the ground if we’re to act responsibly on climate change. We don’t need or want more opencast in Wales.

“There is huge potential for renewables in Wales, creating a clean energy economy fit for the future. Not only is the industry potentially worth billions to the Welsh economy, which could be invested by communities and local authorities in public services, but it would provide decent, sustainable jobs across Wales.”

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Minister opens film premiere for port stories

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WALES’ Arts and Sports Deputy Minister has launched a new film charting the histories and life of five port towns in Wales and Ireland.

Premiered at Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth, the series of eight short documentary films and one feature-length film, At the Water’s Edge: Stories of the Irish Sea, aim to promote the ports of Fishguard, Holyhead and Pembroke Dock in Wales, and Dublin Port and Rosslare Harbour in Ireland, as well as the three ferry routes connecting them.

The films were produced as part of Ports, Past and Present, a project which explores the history and cultural heritage of the ports, showcasing stunning views of the landscapes and wildlife of the Irish Sea coast and revealing the human histories of the port communities.

In Fishguard, residents Gary Jones and Jana Davidson talk of invasions by pirates and French armies, while Hedydd Hughes explains how she teaches children about local legends. In Rosslare Harbour, the Todd family from Fishguard meet their Irish in-laws, the Fergusons.

Local historian David James shares the extraordinary story of how the son of a Japanese samurai came to plant a ginkgo tree in Pembroke Dock, and local councillor Josh Beynon explores the secret location where the Millennium Falcon was built for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. 

In Dublin and Holyhead, poetry by Gillian Brownson and Gary Brown celebrates the centuries old link of their ports. Historian Gareth Huws explains how traces of Bronze Age settlements can still be seen in the Ynys Môn town.

Deputy Minister for Arts and Sport, Dawn Bowden MS, who came to the premiere, said:

“Through showcasing the rich and diverse cultural history of our ports, bringing life and colour through visual arts, literature and film, the Ports, Past and Present project will not only enhance the experience of visitors of all ages and interests, but also encourage more time and money spent in these communities.

“Engaging with local communities and increasing the awareness of port heritage through panel discussions, creative workshops and talks – is an excellent opportunity to gain the support of local residents ensuring there is a careful balance which works for the local communities as well as visitors from across the Irish Sea and beyond.

“I’m delighted to launch the film which will showcase and celebrate the best each community has to offer to prospective visitors and users of the ferry ports, but also capture the multilingual and multicultural nature of the ports and their surrounding areas.”

Professor Peter Merriman, project team leader at Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences said:

“We are delighted that the Minister has officially launched our films, which portray the rich cultural and natural heritage of these Irish and Welsh port towns. They are the result of almost three years of work by the project team and our production partners Mother Goose films, and we hope that they will inspire visitors to spend more time in the ports as they pass through them.”

The films form part of a wider tourism campaign to raise awareness of the rich coastal and maritime heritage of the five selected ports and their communities.

Project leader Professor Claire Connolly from University College Cork said: “It’s a joy to see so many images and stories from Rosslare, Dublin, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock on screen. The lives and cultures of the port towns come to life in the films and together they offer an extended invitation to stop and stay in these storied places.”

Ceredigion Museum is also hosting a travelling art exhibition looking at the rich coastal history and heritage of the port communities.

Over the coming months, the films will have free screenings around Wales and Ireland, and will then be released generally so that the local communities can promote their own areas.

Ports, Past and Present is funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the Ireland Wales Co-operation Programme, and operates across four institutions in Ireland and Wales, including University College Cork, Aberystwyth University, the University of Wales Trinity St David and Wexford County Council. The film has been led by a team in the Department for Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

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Aberystwyth Town to welcome Knife Angel sculpture

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A HUGE 27-foot sculpture, made from 100,000 confiscated knives, is to be welcomed to Aberystwyth town next month (1 June) as local community groups prepare to come together to promote key prevention, anti-violence and anti-aggression messages.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn, working alongside Dyfed-Powys Police, Aberystwyth Town Council and Ceredigion County Council is bringing the Knife Angel to Llys y Brenin square, Aberystwyth, where it will stand for four weeks as a physical reminder of the effects of violence and aggression.

The iconic sculpture – commissioned by the British Ironwork Centre in Oswestry, Shropshire and created by artist Alfie Bradley – will be on display in the town until 29 June 2022.

This will be the second time that Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn has bought the Knife Angel to the Dyfed Powys Police Force area, with it’s first visit being in Newtown, Powys in January 2020.  Mr Llywelyn has been keen to bring the Knife Angel back to the Force area since then, so that other communities can get involved in the key messages.

Police and Crime Commissioner Dafydd Llywelyn said; “The Knife Angel is a reminder of the devastating impact of knife crime, and any form of violence and aggression has on families and communities.

“Whilst there has been a 105% increase in knife crime in Wales over the last decade, rest assured that the Knife Angel has not been brought to Aberystwyth because of any major problem with this kind of crime in the area.

“However, we do acknowledge, that knife crimes have taken place here within the last year. Although a proportion of these were domestic, not street based, it is worrying that a small number of these involved suspects under the age of 18. I am pleased to see however that the Police and partners have come together over the last 6-months to put interventions in place to divert children from knife crime.

“Prevention of crime and diversion away from crime is essential. We hope that the Knife Angel will greatly assist us in raising critical awareness of knife crime whilst creating a widespread intolerance to violent behaviour within our communities.”

Inspector Andy Williams of Dyfed-Powys Police said: “While Dyfed-Powys Police is one of the safest places to live and work in the country, we still see the devastating effect knife crime has on our communities.

“In July last year we had a murder in Ceredigion involving a knife, when John Bell died after being stabbed in Cardigan.

“That case showed the devastation knives can have, with the loss of a life and the impact that has on Mr Bell’s loved ones, withs the man responsible rightly being sentenced to life in prison.

“The Knife Angel is a very dramatic and powerful sculpture that aims to inspire people not to turn to knife crime or even to carry a knife for protection.

“I would urge anyone to go and see it. Take your children and make a day of it to take in this poignant reminder of the dangers of violence and aggression, particularly when weapons are involved.”

Aberystwyth Town Mayor, Dr Talat Chaudhri, said: “We welcome the Knife Angel to Aberystwyth and stand together with towns and cities where knife crime is a bigger problem than it is here. There is no place for violence of any kind in our community.”

Children and young people from across Aberystwyth and neighbouring areas are being encouraged to get involved as well as community groups and organisations, in visiting the Knife Angel and taking part in engagement activities which focus on the key messages – the impact of violent crime, prevention, and diversion away from violence.

If you would like to find out more about how you, your community, school, college or university groups can get involved, please contact the Commissioner’s Engagement Team on OPCC.Communication@dyfed-powys.police.uk.

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Young person celebrates kickstart job and overcomes several obstacles

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22-YEAR-OLD Lee from rural Ceredigion found it challenging to secure permanent employment. Having no mode of transport as well as his diagnosis of autism and depression meant that Lee has experienced significant barriers with finding and maintaining employment. Communities For Work Plus (CFW+) provided Lee with the right tools and opportunities to find the right role for him. He now has a job at ASN Watson (Savers), with a more positive future ahead.

Lee was struggling financially with increasing debt and although he had been working in the past, the nature and environment of the work was not practical for Lee’s abilities; he was often misunderstood by employers.

After being referred to CFW+ from Job Centre Plus, Aberystwyth, Lee received support with job searches, applications, cover letters, cv writing, and interview skills. He’s now in paid employment, secured through the Kickstart Scheme. The UK Government Kickstart Scheme provides funding to employers to create jobs for 16 to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit.

Lee said: “The project helped me a lot as I struggle to know where to start when it comes to finding jobs, but this definitely helped. Communities for Work+ has got you covered!”

Communities For Work Plus is a Welsh Government funded project, delivered by Ceredigion County Council which supports individuals in or at risk of poverty, aged 16 or over, across Ceredigion and throughout Wales. Participants may be experiencing in-work poverty, unemployment, living on minimum wage, or struggling to pay basic monthly outgoings on sporadic zero-hour contracts.

Misha Homayoun-Fekri, CFW+ Mentor said: “Lee has been a pleasure to support. He was always very responsive, and we worked together every step of the way. I am so pleased for Lee that he has found a job that he can be happy in.”

Since starting his new role, Lee has become a lot more independent, his mental health has improved, and has started to save money for the future.

Councillor Wyn Thomas, Ceredigion County Council Cabinet Member for Schools, Lifelong Learning and Skills, said: “One in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. A report released by the Office for National Statistics shows that only 21.7% of autistic people are in employment; meaning that businesses are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from the strengths that autistic people can bring to the workplace. So, it’s great to hear that Lee has found an autism-friendly employer through the support provided by CFW+ and I encourage more employers to be more inclusive to all abilities when considering employees.”

If you think the project may be able to help you or if you would like more information, contact the team on 01545 574193 or email TCC-EST@ceredigion.gov.uk.

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