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Aberfan After Forty Years

Iain McLean was the Project Director for research into the Aberfan Diaster. The work was funded by the British Academy and the ESRC.

The 40th anniversary of the tragic Aberfan disaster attracted extensive media comment, with four TV documentaries and numerous print media mentions. On 21 October 1966, 144 people were killed at Aberfan, a mining village near Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales, when a tip of colliery waste slid down the mountain and engulfed a school and houses. 109 of the victims were children in the school, and a further five were their teachers.

McLean and Johnes conclude that there were systematic failures of government and regulation both before and after the disaster. A searing Tribunal report laid the blame entirely on the National Coal Board, with especial condemnation of its Chairman, the Rt. Hon. Lord Robens. Yet none of those blamed was prosecuted, dismissed or demoted. On completion of his term as Chairman of the NCB, the Rt. Hon. Lord Robens was appointed to chair the committee on health and safety at work that led to the present law in that area. The Charity Commission tried to stop the Disaster Fund from making payments to bereaved families until they had reviewed each case ‘to ascertain whether the person had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally`. In 1968 the Wilson government forced the charitable Disaster fund to hand over £150,000 towards the cost of removing the remaining tips above Aberfan. In 1997, Secretary of State for Wales Ron Davies returned £150,000 to the Fund, citing Iain`s work as one of the motivating factors in his decision.

Throughout October 2006, Iain has dealt with a flood of media inquiries. He was a consultant in all four documentaries and appeared in two of them. A good deal of the work consisted of persuading media outlets to handle the story sensitively. The media were asked to stay away from the two services held in Aberfan on October 21st 2006 and on the whole they complied.

There is unfinished business at Aberfan, described in Iain`s latest working paper at http://www.nuffield.ox.ac.uk/Politics/papers/2006/mclean4.pdf. In particular, the amount handed back by Ron Davies, although very welcome, was only about a tenth of the value (allowing for inflation and interest forgone) of the money unlawfully taken in 1968. Iain plans to join other campaigners for the restoration of this money to the Memorial Fund to provide an endowment for the upkeep of the Aberfan cemetery and the memorial garden on the site of Pantglas Junior School.