Aberystwyth, the Romani and the Daily Mail

In 1991, the then Cyngor Dosbarth Ceredigion (Ceredigion District Council) agreed to put the flags of 20 stateless nations on the North Prom in Aberystwyth. They published a booklet about the flags (pictured) which explained,

“When a Welsh person visits another country it is often the case that a display of flags is encountered adorning some public building or space. More often than not, the Red Dragon of Wales is not found amongst them. Realising that inhabitants of minority nations throughout Europe probably experience similar disappointments, the District Council of Ceredigion has resolved that as many as possible of the flags of Europe’s minority nations should be flown at Aberystwyth every summer.”

The nations originally included in the display were Alsace, Brittany, Catalonia, Cornwall, Corsica, Estonia, the Basque Country, Latvia, Lithuania, Isle of Man, Galicia, Occitania, Val d’Aosta, South Tirol, Friesland, Sardinia, Wales, Scotland, Flanders, Wallonia. Since then, Lapland has been added.

The South Prom has a further 30 flags of a more random selection of recognised states.

Recently Plaid Cymru councillor Mark Strong suggested in an Aberystwyth Town Council meeting that it would be in keeping with the spirit of the project to add a Romani flag, which has existed since 1933.

Although the Romani, more colloquially known as gypsies, are dispersed across most countries of Europe, the majority live in central and eastern Europe, often on the margins of society and facing considerable discrimination.

However in Wales, the Romani played a key role in helping to preserve Welsh folk music at a time when the Methodist establishment was trying to extinguish it. The descendants of Abram Wood, thought to be the first Romani in Wales in the 17th century, were trilingual in Welsh, English and Romani and contributed significantly to the Welsh harp tradition, one of them teaching Nansi Richards who became one of Wales’s greatest harpists .

Following Mark Strong’s suggestion, local paper the Cambrian News, published a small responsibly-written article about the idea on page 9 that week.

The Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph then picked up on the story. The Mail reported, ‘Council chiefs are planning to fly a gypsy flag on Aberystwyth's seafront promenade” (it’s interesting how a suggestion by a community councillor can end up being portrayed as clear plans by ‘Council chiefs’).

All hell then broke loose on the newspaper’s message board. There followed an avalanche of misinformed, abusive comments, many directed at Aberystwyth, which ironically provided living proof of the persecutory attitudes that Romani often suffer:

“My wife and I were in Aberystwyth not three weeks ago and to be honest it will be the last - what a dump.”

“Deranged Liberal elite crackpots”

“Another local council full of left wing Civil Service Nutters.”

“Political correctness gone bonkers again. The only flags that should be flown, are the flags of the four Nations that make up the United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland. I hope their tourism suffers, until they repent of their folly.”

“How the hell do these left wing liberal wets get in to positions where they can influence soppy decisions like this.”

“How many hours of council staff time has it taken to come up with this initiative, design it, discuss it further, develop it and implement it, plus what is the cost of "raw materials" and "construction"?”

“When you thought these loony council officials couldn't get any more stupid they jump up and prove us wrong. Sack them now without their gold-plated pension.”

“Why don’t they just go ahead and replace the whole lot with the hammer and sickle, that’s the ultimate goal of these silly seaside Labour councils.”

“The obvious solution is to take down the Union Jack. It will fit in with the ongoing policy of trashing anything British wont it?”

“Why not just fly it over Downing Street! I give up with this country, run by the left loonies and has been for years...”

“How about taking down all of them flags and replacing them with the British Union Flag.”

“How about remove the flag of St. George. I wouldn't want it flown in a country like yours.”

“This place is a complete dump and why anyone would want to go there is beyond me.”

“I bet that the Union Jack will be removed to accommodate this”.

Many comments equated Romani with the residents of Dale Farm in Essex, who have been in the news recently but are not Romani.

More positively there were these:

“I'm glad that Wales have seen sense and welcomed this community. We should all be treated as equals, there has been too much bad publicity since the Dale Farm fiasco. I am not a traveller but feel too much is being done to turn these people into monsters. “

“I salute Aberystwyth Town Council for this very small but important recognition of the role the Roma people have played in the local community and the Welsh nation. Thank you.”

The world of the current UK press is a surreal one. It apparently only takes a community councillor to make a suggestion one night in a small meeting room in an Aberystwyth side street for a twisted version to end up at the breakfast tables of millions of people, some of whom, for whatever dysfunctional psychological reason, then feel the need to expound their intolerance on newspaper message boards.

Now clearly the Romani are a different category to most of the stateless nations on the Prom in that they don’t claim any particular territory. And I’m prepared to give at least some credence to the popular view that a few Romani must accept a degree of blame for the discrimination they’ve experienced. That, though, wouldn’t be the same thing as saying their significant contribution to European culture shouldn’t be acknowledged. And whether or not the Romani flag ends up on the Prom, the issue has highlighted how unique Aberystwyth’s minority nation flags are.

Lib Dem Town Councillor Alec Dauncey has had this to say on his blog.

“Frankly, this sort of thing makes me glad I live in this strange and interesting town.”

Supporting Mark Strong, he’s now suggesting that the Aberystwyth small nation flags project should be extended to stateless nations outside Europe like Palestine (alongside Israel), Tibet and Southern Sahara.

So here we have representatives of the two major political parties in Ceredigion on the same side of the debate in support of small and stateless nations. That probably says something about the different perspective on the world that apparently peripheral Welsh towns like Aberystwyth have to offer.

Anyway, when actual ‘council chiefs’, i.e. those Ceredigion officers who are responsible for putting up any flags, heard about it, they quickly put out a blunt, dampening statement saying, “Ceredigion County Council has no immediate plans to amend the current display of flags”.

Whatever flags are put up in the future, I’ll leave the final (slightly misinformed) comment to someone on the Daily Mail message board from Chesterfield,

“Well done to the tourist board of Aberystwyth, for the cost of a flag and a flag pole tourist officials have managed to gain thousands of pounds of free publicity for the town. I didn't know about all the flags until I read this story but now I do know about the display I will definitely visit the town when I'm next in the area.”

To people like this, ‘different’ equals ‘interesting’. Hopefully there are more out there like him.