O'r Cyrion i'r Canol – from the periphery to the centre – would be an apt title for most autobiographies written by prominent Welsh nationalists over the last twenty years.

For so long irrelevant in day-to-day politics, members of Plaid Cymru rejoiced in the early years of devolution where they often pulled the strings in the Senedd; culminating, quite dramatically, in entering government for the first time in 2007.

The ‘One Wales’ administration, formed with Welsh Labour, was a remarkable testament to how nationalists had started to come in from a long and harsh Cambrian winter to experience the sun-lit shore of Cardiff Bay.

The National Wales: Ieuan Wyn Jones autobiography, O'r Cyrion i'r CanolIeuan Wyn Jones autobiography, O'r Cyrion i'r Canol

Yet say the name Ieuan Wyn Jones to the general public, and few will know who he is. (And, to be fair, the same goes for the vast majority of politicians currently sitting in the Welsh Parliament.)

But for those uninformed, it is worth reminding them that this is the man who led Plaid Cymru from the sidelines of language marches to the heart of Welsh Government.

It is he who rose to be Deputy First Minister, not the grand Dafydd Elis-Thomas nor the dynamic Dafydd Wigley, and is therefore the most senior elected Welsh nationalist in the history of Wales.

Jones has produced a well-written, honest, and insightful memoir to tell this story, and many other strands from his time in public life. I am slightly puzzled, though: why now, a decade after exiting the political frontline, has he decided to put pen to paper? He says, quite simply, that the publishers came knocking.

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He admits a score settling text was not his priority as he stood down from the Plaid Cymru leadership in 2012, however, because he was “too close to the events” and possibly wouldn’t have a “dispassionate view” on his career. The tragic death of his wife in 2014, the artist Eirian Llwyd, also caused an understandable change in priorities.

It prompts me to ask how he reflects on events from more than a decade ago, and whether they seem different had he told his story earlier. “Probably,” he says, carefully. “But I did write quite a detailed diary during the period  –  of my political life, anyway. And I did find that the memory occasionally did play tricks on me. When I went back to my diaries, I found that the events didn't quite run as designed originally thought in my own mind. Those diaries helped me to sort-of put it more accurately to reflect what had happened.”

The National Wales: Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones with new First Minister Carwyn Jones in Cathays Park, Cardiff in 2009Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones with new First Minister Carwyn Jones in Cathays Park, Cardiff in 2009

And a lot did happen, which is why I have asked to speak to him. What’s most interesting to hear from Jones is that his position as Deputy First Minister was not the biggest prize for him entering government. More important was that a referendum on law-making powers in 2011 would be granted as a result of Plaid Cymru’s support for Welsh Labour. Without a coalition, the former party leader insists, that referendum “wouldn’t have been delivered”.

Of course, as ever, amongst all the policy wrangling, what forced Rhodri Morgan back to negotiations with Plaid Cymru was the fear his party could lose power. “They knew that they couldn't bring us back to the table unless they made something quite dramatic,” Jones asserts.

What fascinates me about the frantic dealmaking after that Senedd election, detailed in Jones’ book, is how close Wales came to having a non-Labour government for the first time in the devolved era; which would have been symbolic, changed the political landscape, and perhaps made us a better country today – at ease with being, well, more than just a one-party state. I put the hypothesis to Jones. “Who knows?” he chuckles. “We don’t know, do we really, what would have happened? I always accepted that going into coalition with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was a high risk.”

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Alas, the ‘Rainbow Coalition’ fell through. And because of the current ideological differences between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Conservatives, not to mention the wider political landscape, such a deal – where there is an “understanding” between opposition party leaders – would be near impossible today.

I learn that Nick Bourne, perhaps in contrast to the current crop of Tories, was “easy to talk to” on several contentious issues at the time, such as student finance and NHS privatisation. Now, Jones says, the Welsh party don’t seem to “have a free hand”. Instead, they “trot out all the things that come from London.”

That may be true, but since Jones stood down as an AM eight years ago, his beloved Plaid Cymru have faced significant obstacles and not enjoyed much unbridled success, either. What are the main challenges facing Plaid Cymru? “That's a big question,” he says, quite daunted at the prospect of answering. “My feeling was there were some quite difficult discussions internally in the party: how do you actually broaden your appeal… without losing what you've got? Those tensions appeared from time to time.” One example he gives is when Plaid Cymru adopted its English name: “Let’s be honest, it wasn't a popular decision within the Welsh speaking areas.”

The former leader laments that even though efforts were made to create a national campaigning capacity within Plaid Cymru in 1999 – to help it move away from simply winning and building bases in the west and the north of Wales – “somehow or another, we didn't build on that...” This is, of course, the great conundrum for party activists: Plaid Cymru has never really grown its support across Wales since the turn of the century. Jones recognises how deep-rooted the issues are when it comes to the party’s structure and appeal: “I would think that if you actually looked at the party membership, it tends to be concentrated in traditional areas and is still weak in other areas. I think it is something that has to be addressed.”

I wonder what he thinks of the recent election; quite disappointing for his party, I say, even though he and I both acknowledge that the individual governments of Britain did well in their respective elections, especially the “popular incumbent” Mark Drakeford.

With that being said, for Plaid Cymru to hype up that it would go into government during campaigning, was wrong. Or, rather, it “was never going to happen” according to Jones. “But even so, you would have expected some measure of gains,” he adds.

I put to him the problems were wide-ranging in May, with strategists first seeking to make the contest a presidential election, just as the Welsh public were merely starting to warm to devolution. Jones acknowledges that Adam Price’s decision to pledge an independence referendum in the first term of a Plaid Cymru government was “a mistake”, too. “It was a step too far at that time,” I am firmly told.

There is, however, also a clear warning for those who wish to see Price deposed as leader. “I think the real danger, and I found that during my time as party leader, is that very often the person that takes all the blame for election defeats is the leader,” Jones tells me. “The reality is that it's much more complex than that. Party leaders obviously take a shared responsibility, but there is a collective responsibility that the party needs to address. Removing certain individuals at a particular time doesn't really solve anything, as we've seen, so there are structural issues here that I think need to be addressed.”

Then we are back to coalitions again, with the rumours around a Welsh Labour-Plaid Cymru Senedd pact still swirling. In short, for Jones, there “has to be a significant reason” to make an agreement – for example, electoral and Senedd reform – to avoid being known as a party that can only “persuade other people to do things for Wales.” (Otherwise known as a pressure group, perhaps?) Jones goes on to say that he entered politics because he wanted to make an impact. “I wanted to deliver something… At the end of the day, you've got to take responsibility to do something yourself.”

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Jones is obsessed with that word “delivery”. He’s proud to have helped establish M-Sparc, Wales’ first science park on Ynys Môn, bringing together a “triple helix of government, academia and business.”

In politics, he was particularly pleased that Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol was formed in 2011. Society should, however, ensure the language is not a “political football”. For instance, he recalls a private conversation with Rhodri Morgan – not referenced in the book – before the 2007 election, where both leaders agreed not to make Cymraeg a negative issue during the campaign.

Fast forward almost fifteen years, and here we are. Political debate, Jones laments, is “quite angry” compared to then. Nevertheless, I get the sense he is optimistic. “If somebody asked me: ‘Are you a person half empty or half full?’ And my answer is half full. Because my feeling was that to be a politician, you have to be optimistic.” Politics is played out in phases, Jones says, and he invokes the memory of the One Wales government once again – specifically how not even those serial optimists expected such a significant margin supporting ‘Yes’ in the 2011 referendum. “It shows what can be done,” he notes.

Maybe it does. Yes, progress is sometimes slow, but “people will realise that, actually, we do need more power to the Senedd. It is a good thing to remember that when people are asked, ‘Who do you really want to deliver your services?’, the vast majority say the Welsh Parliament.” As Ron Davies would say, a process not an event.

And while Wales has come a long way since that first and second devolution referendum, the future for Jones’ party remains uncertain. Its leader embattled; their political momentum thwarted; and up against the most popular and high-profile Welsh Labour government in the history of devolution. Jones may have chronicled how he travelled from the fringes of the Welsh public stage to being one of its main actors, but whether Plaid Cymru remains at the centre or moves to the periphery of national politics remains to be seen. That will be one for a book in the future.

O’r Cyrion i'r Canol, an autobiography from former Plaid Cymru leader and Deputy First Minister Ieuan Wyn Jones, is published by Y Lolfa (£9.99)

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