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

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.

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.

Belfast Telegraph

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