Belfast Telegraph

Homage to Catalonia

Queen's University professor Liam Kennedy and his wife, the academic Irene Boada, love their Catalan homeland... but they disagree on whether it should cede from Spain

Nationalist activists march during a mass rally against Catalonia’s declaration of independence, in Barcelona yesterday
Nationalist activists march during a mass rally against Catalonia’s declaration of independence, in Barcelona yesterday
Liam Kennedy
Irene Boada with their son

Think of Barcelona: sunshine, teeming street life, cafes, tapas, open-air concerts and cavernous nightclubs.

This metropolis hardly seems to sleep, kept awake by the millions of tourists who throng the city as well as the beaches that stretch along the Mediterranean coast of Catalonia in north-east Spain.

There is the astonishing architectural genius of Antoni Gaudi as exemplified by his unfinished masterpiece, the church of Sagrada Familia. Art galleries abound, including those that honour artists such as Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

But these are times of deep change. The red and gold bars of the Catalan flag, sometimes carrying the independence motif, are everywhere to be seen. Less common, and more apparent in the outer, working-class rim of the city is the flag of the Spanish state. The flags tell us of a deeply divided society.

At the beginning of this month more than two million voters out of a Catalan population of just over seven million voted for full independence from Spain.

This was in a referendum organised by the semi-autonomous Catalan parliament but deemed illegal by the Spanish government.

Madrid sent in the Guardia Civil who assaulted hundreds of voters, some brutally, in an attempt to disrupt the referendum. The vast majority of voters plumped for independence while many who were opposed seem to have abstained.

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As in Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s, television images of bloodied faces and police violence may well have radicalised a younger generation of Catalonians.

That remains to be seen. Much depends also on whether the governing party, the right-wing, authoritarian Partido Popular, encourages further strong-arm tactics.

As of this weekend there have been two further momentous developments.

First, the regional government of Catalonia, led by Carles Puigdemont, has declared independence for Catalonia, in line with the results of the referendum (a declaration that neither Spain nor other countries of the European Union recognise).

Second, the Spanish government has dissolved the regional parliament and has imposed direct rule from Madrid.

Its position is that it is implacably opposed to the partition of Spain and the secession of any part of the national territory. The Spanish constitution guarantees the unity of Spain. Thus, as viewed from Madrid, those proposing the break-up of the country are guilty of treason.

Direct rule might seem relatively innocuous. After all, Northern Ireland dances in and out of power-sharing with few major consequences, other than further increments to gross regional blather. But never before has the stripping away of regional powers and autonomy been attempted, that is, in the time since Spain adopted its current constitution in 1978.

This followed the death of dictator General Franco who reviled Catalan republicans and separatists and sought to suppress the Catalan language.

For some three decades after the advent of democracy, Catalan independentistes constituted only a small fraction of the Catalan electorate.

What is happening in Catalonia right now, if the independentistes have their way, is more like Brexit, with all its uncertainties and unfathomable outcomes.

The longer term consequences could well strengthen secessionist tendencies, not only in Catalonia and Spain but in other parts of Europe.

But Brexit, complicated enough as we now know it to be, is not attended by threats of force. Catexit is. At the moment, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, is threatening further repressive measures. He has already dismissed the head of the Catalan regional police force and two leading members of the pro-independence movement have been lodged in jail. More arrests are promised.

While both sides have been playing something of a cat-and-mouse game in recent weeks, the space for compromise has been shrinking.

It is now dangerously narrow. There is little to suggest the Partido Popular has learned much from conflicts elsewhere, including, one might add, the malign lessons from the Northern Ireland Troubles. Sheltering behind the Spanish constitution, as if it were chiselled in stone, it has set its face against permitting the kind of independence referenda that took place in Quebec and more recently in Scotland. In both cases the independence movements lost, and well-informed commentators suggest this would have been the case in Catalonia also. But one would not be so sure now.

As one Catalan writer has wryly put it: "Madrid is a factory for the production of Catalan independence. An unrelated but fortuitous force for independence has been the impact of the economic depression since 2008. Economic and political grievances proved to be mutually reinforcing, despite (or perhaps because) Catalonia is one of the most economically advanced regions in Europe."

By and large, the independentistes have been more effective in presenting their arguments to a wider audience. One particularly emotive video, appealing for European help for the Catalan cause, has gone viral. That could change. Moreover, stripped of their powers, it is difficult to see how Mr Puigdemont and his government colleagues can give substance to the assertion of Catalan independence. He also faces a deeper problem.

The people of Catalonia are not as one on constitutional change. Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, have since the 1950s attracted huge numbers of migrants from Andalucia and other economically disadvantaged regions of Spain.

First-generation Catalans, who are largely working-class, and many of their children, appear to be less enamoured on political independence and place more emphasis on social and economic reform.

One of the authors, the Catalan-born Irene Boada, feels the point of no return has now been reached after years of fruitless negotiation. In her view there is an undercurrent of hostility towards Catalonia and its people and a great lack of emotional intelligence on the part of the Madrid authorities. Catalans have tried over the last decade to negotiate stronger measures of autonomy for Catalonia - measures incidentally that were supported by the Spanish Socialist party - but to no avail. In the light of this dialogue of the deaf, only negotiated independence for Catalonia, mediated by international bodies, can resolve the disputed issues of language, culture and nationality. This will mean reforming the Spanish Constitution and Constitutional Court. Catalonia's future lies beyond Spain but firmly within the European Union.

Liam Kennedy, a frequent visitor to Catalonia, is of the view that in the longer term Catalans are in the stronger position politically and that an act of generosity on their part, in the face of the intransigence of the Partido Popular, just might open the way to a compromise short of a republic. Perhaps along the lines of the Quebec-Canada settlement.

Moreover, Mr Puigdemont needs to bear in mind, amid the giddy excitement of it all, that he has a 'constituency within', the half or so of the Catalan people who do not currently favour independence.

Both authors agree, with attitudes hardening on the two sides, that time is running out and that the future is dangerously unpredictable. But both take some reassurance from the fact that Catalonia, unlike the Basque Country and Ireland, lack a tradition of terrorism.

Irene Boada is from Barcelona and teaches Spanish and Catalan at Queen's University Belfast. She has published widely on Spanish, Catalan and Irish. Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of history at Queen's University Belfast and writes on Irish history and politics

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