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Remembering Tyrone O'Sullivan, South Wales N.U.M. Hero

Those attending the memorial service held on 19 June in Swansea’s All Saints Church for Tyrone O’Sullivan – legendary NUM Lodge Secretary of Tower Colliery and leader of the workers’ buy-out which saved Tower from closure in 1995 – included activists from all major trade unions and outstanding political figures such as Mark Drakeford, Leader of the Welsh Assembly.

At the request of the O’Sullivan Family, there were only two speakers:

Arthur Scargill, former NUM President, was Tyrone’s friend and comrade for over 50 years; they fought together in the major strike actions of 1969, 1972, 1974 and 1984/85;

Jeremy Corbyn MP, first met Tyrone in the 1984/85 miners’ strike when his Islington, London constituency mobilised to provide food and funds for Tower and for mining communities throughout South Wales.

Both paid emotional tributes, which were warmly received, to Tyrone, a giant who fought for trade union rights and Socialism, both nationally and internationally.

Arthur pointed out that when in the pit closure blood-bath of 1992 Trade and Industry Secretary Michael Heseltine commented cynically that: “If miners want to save their uneconomic pits, let them buy them..” Tyrone and the miners at Tower did just that.

They acquired the colliery as a co-operative which in its first year produced over £4 million profit for workers and their community, not for millionaires who had plundered the remaining pits.

Below is Arthur’s contribution to his comrade and friend:


Friends and Comrades:

We are here today to honour the life of Tyrone O’Sullivan and celebrate the memories we have of a wonderful human being – a committed Socialist, an outstanding trade unionist – someone who, throughout his life, struggled in so many ways against oppression and exploitation, poverty and war.

I offer my deepest sympathy to Elaine, the children and grand-children and all the family Tyrone loved so much.

I want to express my own gratitude for the fact that they were willing to share him with the comrades and colleagues who were lucky enough to work with him and campaign alongside him – especially the men, and the women, who made Tower NUM an inspiration to us all.

My partner, Nell Myers, and I feel privileged to be here to pay tribute to a comrade and friend I first met more than 50 years ago.

I want to share a few events and memories that are always with me.

I first met Tyrone in 1969 when miners took “unofficial” strike action, fighting for shorter hours for our surface workers. We were both rank-and-file miners; he was only 23 and I was 31 – and how we fought!

Our action was opposed not only by the National Coal Board but by the NUM national leadership. In spite of this, we rank and file miners and activists were determined and united, and we won.

Tyrone described that strike as our “October Revolution” and how right he was. It was a turning point for our Union which had been passive since nationalization in 1948 – without that fight, the strikes of 1972, 1974 and 1984/85 would never have taken place.

In 1972, Tyrone and I were together again in Birmingham at the Battle of Saltley Gate.

Once again, determined and united, we achieved victory – and that victory, historically involved 20,000 Birmingham trade unionists joining us on the 10th of February on the picket lines and forcing the police to close Saltley’s gates. That battle led to the Union winning a historic victory.

In 1974, we found ourselves yet again having to fight the NCB, for a wage increase. Our strike began on 5 February and, shortly after, Prime Minister Ted Heath called a General Election on the question of “Who Governs Britain?”

We were already facing a three-day week. On 8 February, NUM President Joe Gormley indicated to the NUM National Executive Committee that Ted Heath had asked the NEC to consider suspending the strike during the election campaign – a proposal rejected by the NEC and in all coalfields including South Wales and Yorkshire.

Our strike continued, with the NUM picketing power stations, ports and, above all, steel works; at the same time, the Union gave evidence to a Pay Board Inquiry which agreed with our case.

Our strike not only secured the Union’s full wage claim, but six further claims which had not been dealt with for over a decade. Our victory in 1974 brought the overthrow of a Tory Government – and produced a Plan For Coal, signed by the Labour Government, the Coal Board and the Mining Unions.

At the start of the historic 1984/85 strike, Tyrone and Tower faced a dilemma. The NUM South Wales Area had voted against taking strike action, but Tyrone’s warnings at Tower about the result of not fighting against pit closures gained overwhelming support.

He explained that the NUM was acting legally in accordance with National Rule 41 which gave permission to NUM Areas to determine whether or not to take strike action.

Miners took legal action on an Area basis against the Coal Board’s Area Pit Closure programme – which was in breach of the Plan for Coal.

The Scottish High Court ruled that our action was legal – a High Court decision deliberately overlooked by the media and our enemies.

At the start of the strike, South Wales Area President Emlyn Williams told the Union’s National Executive Committee on 12 April 1984: ‘To hide behind a ballot is an act of cowardice. I tell you this now – decide what you like about a ballot but our coalfield will be on strike and stay on strike.’

Along with colleagues such as Ian Isaacs, Secretary of St. John’s Lodge, Tyrone successfully organized flying pickets, first throughout the South Wales coalfield and then much further afield, including – in June, 1984 – to the Battle of Orgreave in Yorkshire, where miners demonstrated outstanding courage in the face of what can only be described as state-sponsored police brutality.

As Tyrone himself later said: “We faced horses, dogs like wolves on long chains and the police all with body armour, shields and long truncheons…….

“The great injustice was that the media portrayal of such events was warped to paint miners as the aggressors..”

He was not only brave but wise: from early in that great struggle, Tyrone warmly welcomed the involvement of the women in all our mining communities – what would become Women Against Pit Closures, a historic movement in itself, which I believe had a political effect well beyond the 1984/85 strike.

In 2011, Tyrone told a Wales Online interviewer that as the strike progressed he and Elaine suspected, with strong evidence, that their phone was tapped.

Oddly enough, it was in 2011 that a special unit of the Metropolitan Police, working on Operation Weeting, summoned me to a meeting to confirm that not only my phone but the phone of my doctor-daughter had been historically tapped as well. No surprises there.

We all salute Tyrone’s organizing skills and commitment to principle, but I also have reason to be personally grateful for his solidarity.

In the aftermath of the 1984/85 strike, I decided to stand in 1987 for re-election as NUM President.

Sadly, the NUM South Wales Area leadership opposed my standing. Tyrone and Tower – again with comrades such as Ian Isaacs – mobilized a campaign among South Wales miners that secured a 61% vote for me when I was re-elected in January 1988.

Then, two years later, in 1990, the Daily Mirror and Central Television’s “Cook Report” launched a vicious smear campaign against NUM Secretary Peter Heathfield and me, alleging financial wrong-doing during the 1984/85 strike.

This attack was taken up like wildfire throughout the mass media – and led to the NUM NEC launching a High Court legal action against us.

Peter and I fought back, going into the coalfields to refute the false allegations against us.

In South Wales it was comrades such as Tyrone and Ian Isaacs who organized – I’ll never forget it – an incredible overflow meeting in Maesteg Town Hall at which Peter and I were overwhelmed by the support and solidarity of the South Wales miners.

With the support of our Union’s members, the High Court action by the NUM NEC against us was dropped. In Spring 1991 Channel Four broadcast an edition of “Dispatches” directed by Ken Loach which destroyed the Daily Mirror/”Cook Report” smear campaign which had been intended to destroy us. Eventually, even the then Editor of the Daily Mirror issued a public apology.

In Autumn 1992, Michael Heseltine announced the Tory Government’s intention to close 31 pits, but this was only a start to the impending slaughter of the entire industry. In 1994, the Government announced it was privatizing the remaining collieries.

I recall coming down to attend a meeting alongside Tyrone and the Tower Lodge Officials with British Coal’s Area Director Philip Weekes, with the Union arguing the case for Tower’s future.

Although the Area Director knew the colliery had years of life left he was bound by Government instruction to close the pit even though it was on the list for privatization.

Following this meeting, Tyrone demonstrated his ingenuity by putting forward the proposal to buy Tower – as part of the industry’s privatization – in order to save it and manage it as a workers’ co-operative.

This proposal was conceded by Prime Minister John Major.

I remember the concession well, because Tyrone was with me at the NUM offices in Barnsley when the announcement was made!

After the re-opening of Tower in 1995, Tyrone invited me down for a visit. I recall how rightly proud everyone was: they had known if the pit was managed properly it could be a success – as indeed it was.

Tower Colliery remained open and profitable for the next 13 years. It ensured employment not just for the miners themselves but for workers in the steel industry and key services.

And not only in South Wales. Coal from Tower benefited coal merchants around Britain – including in South Yorkshire where a local merchant supplied anthracite to the NUM offices and members of Staff in Barnsley!

The vision and determination of Tyrone and all his Tower colleagues demonstrated the need for Britain to rebuild its indigenous energy reserves, including the use of carbon capture technology in producing “clean” coal – instead of relying on imported energy costing billions for ordinary men and women.

Tyrone knew about my admiration for the Irish trade unionists and Socialists James Connolly and Jim Larkin.

In an oration at the graveside of the murdered US trade unionist Joe Hill, Jim Larkin said:

“Erect no monument to his memory as the man by his example has built himself a monument which will endure for all time.”

Larkin’s tribute to Joe Hill applies to Tyrone O’Sullivan, who belongs in the pantheon of trade union and Socialist heroes.

Farewell, comrade – I was privileged to know you. You were a shining example of what trade unionism and Socialism should be.

Arthur Scargill

19 June 2023

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