Belfast Telegraph

Crackdown on Catalonia was disturbing, but rather than take sides, let's hope peace prevails

Our own experiences show why democracy is only way to address thorny issue of identity, says Alban Maginness

SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Crowds raise their arms up as police move in on members of the public gathered outside to prevent them from voting in the referendum at a polling station where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Crowds raise their arms up as police move in on members of the public gathered outside to prevent them from voting in the referendum at a polling station where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voter hold a ballot paper to vote in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voter hold a ballot paper in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. People in town of Palamos Catalonia await the town hall to open to be able to vote in the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Local Catalan Police known locally as Mossos d'Esquadra, arrive at Palamos town hall just as doors open for people to vote in the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Local Catalan Police known locally as Mossos d'Esquadra, arrive at Palamos town hall just as doors open for people to vote in the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter shouts to the crowd and shows his Catalan identity card after voting in town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voter distributes ballot papers in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter uses that back on a fellow voter to cast their vote at the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voter hold a ballot paper to vote in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voters in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voters cheer after voting in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. An official returns a voter identity card before casting her vote in the town hall of Palamos in Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter casts her vote in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter casts her vote in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter casts his vote in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter casts her vote in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. A voter casts her vote in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voters celebrate with Cava after casting their votes in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
Palamos, Catalonia, Spain. 1st Oct, 2017. Voter queue to cast their vote in the town hall of Palamos, Catalonia during the banned referendum for independence from Spain. Credit: Liam McBurney/RAZORPIX
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police move back to their vans followed by members of the public after storming into polling station to confiscate ballot boxes and ballots where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: A gate locks people out as police try to control the area where people wait to cast their ballot in the referendum vote at Escola Industrial of Barcelona school polling station on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: A woman holds a dog as people wait in the rain to cast their ballots to vote in the referendum at Escola Collaso I Gil public school polling station on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: People hold umbrellas and wait in the rain to cast their ballots to vote in the referendum at Escola Collaso I Gil public school polling station on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
A flag that reads "Hong Kong Independence" (C) is seen with the British colonial-era Hong Kong flag (C) and the pro-independence 'Estelada' Catalan flag (R) as activists take part in an annual protest march on China's national day in Hong Kong on October 1, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Anthony WALLACEANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Members of family comfort each other after failing to vote in the referendum because of the Spanish police closing their polling station on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: A man protests as police arrive to control crowds gathered to cast their ballot in the referendum vote at Escola Industrial of Barcelona school polling station on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: People protest as police try to control the area as people attempt to cast their ballot today at a polling station in the referendum vote on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: A person confronts police trying to control the area as people attempt to vote at polling station in the referendum vote on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police try to control the area as people attempt to cast their ballot today at a polling station in the referendum vote on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Spanish riot police swings a club against would-be voters near a school assigned to be a polling station by the Catalan government in Barcelona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Spanish riot police have forcefully removed a few hundred would-be voters from several polling stations in Barcelona. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: People protest as police try to control the area in their attempt to cast their ballot today at a polling station in the referendum vote on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Anti-separatist demonstrators hold Spanish flags and shout slogans during a protest in support of Spain's unity as Catalonian votes in referendum on October 1, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images)
Spanish Guardia Civil guards grab a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, where Catalan president was supposed to vote, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. More than 5.3 million Catalans are called today to vote in a referendum on independence, surrounded by uncertainty over the intention of Spanish institutions to prevent this plebiscite banned by justice. / AFP PHOTO / Raymond ROIGRAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Crowds gather to cast their ballot in the referendum vote at Escola Industrial of Barcelona school polling station on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Spanish Guardia Civil guards drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, where Catalan president was supposed to vote, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. More than 5.3 million Catalans are called today to vote in a referendum on independence, surrounded by uncertainty over the intention of Spanish institutions to prevent this plebiscite banned by justice. / AFP PHOTO / Raymond ROIGRAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images
BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Voting cards are seen inside the voting station at the Escola Industrial of Barcelona school on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. More than five million eligible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
CORRECTION - Spanish Guardia Civil guards drag a man outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, where Catalan president was supposed to vote, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. More than 5.3 million Catalans are called today to vote in a referendum on independence, surrounded by uncertainty over the intention of Spanish institutions to prevent this plebiscite banned by justice. / AFP PHOTO / Raymond ROIG / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by KENZO TRIBOUILLARD has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [RAYMOND ROIG] instead of [KENZO TRIBOUILLARD]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require.RAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images
A protestor tears an 'Estelada' (Pro-independence Catalan flag) while another (L) tries to burn it during a demonstration called by far-right groups against a referendum on independence for Catalonia, on October 01, 2017 in Barcelona. / AFP PHOTO / PAU BARRENAPAU BARRENA/AFP/Getty Images
A woman casts her vote in a school, assigned to be a referendum polling station by the Catalan government in Girona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. The Spanish government and its security forces are trying to prevent voting in the independence referendum, which is backed by Catalan regional authorities. Spanish officials had said force wouldn't be used, but that voting wouldn't be allowed.(AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
People, holding Andalusian and Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flags, walk with a banner reading "Andalusian workers for the right to decide" during a demonstration in support of the referendum in Catalonia on October 01, 2017, in Granada. / AFP PHOTO / JORGE GUERREROJORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images
People hold Andalusian and Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flags during a demonstration in support of the referendum in Catalonia on October 01, 2017, in Granada. / AFP PHOTO / JORGE GUERREROJORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images
TOPSHOT - People clash with Spanish Guardia Civil guards outside a polling station in Sant Julia de Ramis, where Catalan president was supposed to vote, on October 1, 2017, on the day of a referendum on independence for Catalonia banned by Madrid. More than 5.3 million Catalans are called today to vote in a referendum on independence, surrounded by uncertainty over the intention of Spanish institutions to prevent this plebiscite banned by justice. / AFP PHOTO / Raymond ROIGRAYMOND ROIG/AFP/Getty Images
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: A man and a child holding a red flower run from the police as they move in on the crowds as members of the public gather outside to prevent them from stopping the opening and the intended voting in the referendum at a polling station where the Catalonia President Carles Puigdemont will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police move back to their vans followed by members of the public after storming into polling station to confiscate ballot boxes and ballots where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police move in on members of the public gathered outside to prevent them from voting in the referendum at a polling station where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police move back to their vans followed by members of the public after storming into polling station to confiscate ballot boxes and ballots where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police move in on members of the public gathered outside to prevent them from voting in the referendum at a polling station where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
SANT JULIA DE RAMIS, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: Police move back to their vans followed by members of the public after storming into polling station to confiscate ballot boxes and ballots where the President Carles Puigdemunt will vote later today on October 1, 2017 in Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain. More than five million elegible Catalan voters are estimated to visit 2,315 polling stations today for the Catalonia's referendum on independence from Spain. The Spanish government in Madrid has declared the vote illegal and undemocratic. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

Spain and Catalonia are fast approaching a moment of truth that will determine the future of Spain as a unified state.

What happens will have profound and far-reaching consequences, not just for Spain itself but for rest of Europe and, in particular, the EU.

President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont argues strongly that he and his independence supporters have received a valid mandate through the recent controversial referendum to declare Catalonia an independent state, free from the control of Madrid.

In that referendum, which was declared unconstitutional and illegal by the Spanish supreme court, there was a turnout of 43%, of which 90% voted in favour of independence.

Supporters of independence argue that the vote would have been greater and much more convincing if the Spanish Government had not undermined the poll with brutal policing and the confiscation of ballot papers and other disruptive tactics.

The pro-Spanish side of the argument says that, given the fact that the poll was illegal, most anti-independence supporters stayed at home and effectively boycotted the referendum, thus undermining the result.

Indeed, the recent massive pro-Spanish demonstration in Barcelona is visual evidence of substantial opposition in Catalonia itself to independence.

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Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, in a very risky exercise in brinkmanship, has laid down a deadline to Puigdemont to say whether there has or has not been a formal declaration of independence.

But Rajoy has done great damage to the cause of Spanish unity by his appalling misuse of the national police against the illegal referendum.

It was reminiscent of the RUC's brutal assault on civil rights demonstrators in Derry on October 5, 1968.

Rajoy should understand that heavy-handed policing is, in fact, counterproductive to his aim of retaining Catalonia within the Spanish State.

By using excessive force, he alienated international public opinion for his argument that Catalonia should remain within Spain. The two leaders are now playing for very high stakes, which could easily end in grief for both sides of this highly charged and emotional argument. This is identity politics at its worst.

Before any of us here take sides in this complex argument, it would be best to remind ourselves of the wasteful and appalling slaughter of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. It was the greatest catastrophe to affect the country in the 20th century.

It was similar to the bloodletting and destruction of the disastrous civil war that has engulfed Syria for the past six years.

Even back then, in the late-1930s, idealistic, high-minded young men from all around the world, carried away by their zeal for a political cause, volunteered to fight on either side, because it had become an international stage for competing ideologies, especially fascism and communism. It was also the precursor of the Second World War that was to follow in 1939.

After winning the conflict, nationalist leader General Franco ruled Spain as a highly centralised dictatorship until his death in 1975.

During his reign Franco brutally suppressed any political opposition, including minorities, especially the Catalans and the Basques. This went even to the extent of suppressing the use of the Catalan language.

The greatest achievement of modern Spain was overcoming the traumatic legacy of the Civil War and making a successful, peaceful transition from the Franco dictatorship to a democratic nation that has devolved considerable power of self-government to Catalonia, the Basque Country and other regions, such as Galicia.

It is this precious and extraordinary achievement that should not be put at risk due to narrow centralism, selfish regionalism, nor dangerous identity politics.

Spain has existed as a unified state for the past 500 years since the union of the two Catholic monarchs, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon.

Doubtless, not as long as England and France, but much longer than other European states such as Italy and Germany, which only came into being in 1861 and 1871 respectively. What is required now is cool heads and long reflection on Spain's tragically divided past and the avoidance of a rerun of that tragedy.

What is needed is a peaceful, democratic settlement that addresses the legitimate concerns of both parties.

Language, culture and identity should be respected and, more importantly, fully accommodated.

A legally agreed and unimpeded referendum, such as in Scotland, should be a top consideration. All steps by both sides should be democratic, legal and reasonable.

Given our own divided history, we should not be taking sides, but should help both sides to reach a peaceful agreement. There is too much for all of us to lose.

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