Interview with Jill Evans MEP

First appeared on alt.cardiff on Friday 11 November 2011.

Jill with Cymdeithas supporters

Politicians normally try and hide their law breaking from the public, but Jill Evans Member of the European Parliament (MEP) announced hers publicly when she stopped paying her TV licence in protest against cuts to the only Welsh language television channel, S4C.

“I’m standing side by side with the other people, the other 99 or a hundred, who’ve been refusing to pay their license fees,“ says Jill, outside court where she is appearing for the refusal. “I also feel that I’m doing it on behalf of the people who are not in the position themselves to take that sort of action because of their own circumstances.” She is adamant that this is her duty as a politician.

After a long wait a nervous looking Jill is called into courtroom two of Pontypridd Magistrates Court, joined by around 30 supporters. A large group are from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society), here as a thank you for her support. The youngest supporter, who stays outside the courtroom, is a shy young girl in traditional Welsh dress.

Jill was still a student at Aberystwyth University when the original campaign to establish a Welsh language television channel took place. This also included the tactic of refusing to pay TV licences. “At that time students didn’t have televisions”, says Jill. “Thousands of people refused to pay, I remember the time very well.”

Although this is her first criminal offence, Jill has been an activist for many years and has campaigned with groups including Shelter and Greenpeace. She is currently chair of CND Cymru and took part in a blockade of Atomic Weapons Establishment Aldermaston with them in 2010.

It was when Jill got to university that she became involved in party politics and joined Plaid Cymru. She says this helped her combine her interests, “for me the whole language movement, the peace movement, the environmental movement, all the things that I’ve been involved in all came together.” She is now President of the party.

A day in court

Outside the court there is a murmur that proceedings will not be in Welsh, something a large group of Welsh language activists is bound to take seriously. But in the end they are translated into English, through headphones, to those who can’t speak Welsh.

Representing herself, dressed in a smart suit, Jill pleads guilty and gives a heartfelt speech explaining why she stopped paying. “This is an opportunity to show your support by not placing a fine,” she tells the magistrate. However, she is told that although her guilty plea was taken into account she will be fined £500 plus legal costs. Cries of “disgrace” come from supporters and one person shouts “stand up for the language and democracy”.

Back outside the court Jill looks relieved but resolute for the future. “I was given quite a heavy fine”, she says, “but of course when I begun this campaign, when I started this action I knew what the consequences would be. It was something I expected.”

But from now on Jill will be paying her television licence, along with other Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg campaigners, after an agreement was made between S4C and the BBC which guarantees funding for S4C until 2017. The focus is now a call for the devolution of broadcasting control to Wales, something Jill is also backing.

Language and identity

Jill sees S4C’s security as crucial to the survival of the Welsh language. “I live in the Rhondda and so many young children now go to Welsh language schools who come from non Welsh speaking homes. It’s so important that when they go home from school they hear the language at home.”

Born in the Rhondda in 1959, Jill also learnt Welsh as a second language and says a S4C is important for older people too. “It became such a symbol that it wasn’t just a TV channel. It’s been a real symbol of the whole campaign for the welsh language and its recognised as that around Europe as well.”

As an MEP since 1999 Jill also works to improve the status of Welsh across Europe. “It doesn’t yet have equality”, she explains, “but it is seen as a model by other minority languages as a very successful campaign.”

Jill’s approach to language is linked to her identity as a Welsh person but she doesn’t see that as exclusive. “I come from a family which has a very strong Welsh identity but I’m the only one who speaks Welsh. It’s not essential for being Welsh but I know that most people see the language as something that belongs to all of us whether we speak it or not and its something that has to be protected.”

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