Belfast Telegraph

Moment of truth for Catalonia - married Belfast academics differ over the question of independence for breakaway region

Liam Kennedy and Irene Boada Montagut report from Barcelona

On Wednesday night as we emerged from the underground station, our first glimpse of Barcelona was of Casa Batllo (Batllo House), the modernist masterpiece designed by Antoni Gaudi.

A riot of coloured lights illuminated its symbol-laden facade, suggestive of Barcelona's Mediterranean heritage and cultural sophistica.

Today, however, is election day and about the future. The city seems strangely distracted. There are the multitudes of Christmas shoppers of course and the signs and smells of Christmas. But there are also Catalan and Spanish flags in upstairs windows hinting that this is not just the season of goodwill. The mass-circulation newspaper, El Periodico, headlines: "The Vote of Your Life". Another paper speaks of the "Moment of Truth".

This is the most important election in Catalonia - the prosperous north-eastern region of Spain - since the end of the Francoist dictatorship in the mid-1970s. In October of this year the partly-autonomous Catalan parliament voted narrowly in favour of an independent republic for Catalonia. Madrid reacted with fury, sending in thousands of Spanish police. The central government then dissolved the Catalan parliament and imposed direct rule. In a surprise move, the governing Popular Party (PP) called fresh elections for Christmas week. Many see this as a referendum on Spanish unity, on the one hand, or Catalan independence on the other.

It is now early afternoon and Irene has voted for one of the independence parties, that headed by the exiled (former) President of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont. Her brother, who is a medical doctor in one of Barcelona's hospitals, told us this morning that he would be voting for the Catalan Socialist party, which opposes separation from Spain and the creation of a new border. Liam thinks of the Irish tradition of voting early and often and wishes he had a vote to support his brother-in-law.

Our polling station is one of the buildings of the University of Pompeu Fabra. Two nuns with grey head-dress and bowed-down by the weight of years are just in front of us.

The voting hall is full of people of all ages and infirmities. A man with a bad leg is helped towards the ballot box by a younger man. Possibly his son.

Political commentators predict that if the turnout is large, up to 80%, then the independentists will fail to secure a majority. But it will be close.

The representatives of the main parties are present, though they are not allowed to hand out any leaflets. We make a point of talking to all of them in turn. The oldest of these, predictably perhaps, represents the Popular Party, the ruling party in Madrid. The title is something of a joke as the PP has never been popular in Catalonia and, according to opinion polls, looks like being even less so at this election. The man seems a little ill at ease, speaks in Spanish rather than Catalan, and emphasises the inviolability of the Spanish State and constitution. He is defensive on the question of police brutality during the outlawed independence referendum in October and believes those reports were grossly exaggerated.

In his view the key issues in this election are not economic but revolve round Spanish nationality.

At the other end of the spectrum is the young, dark-haired, community worker from Esquerra Republicana, the Left Republican party of Catalonia.

She speaks English fluently, has spent time in Belfast and is widely travelled. Liam shows her an article from the Economist magazine that claims 3,000 companies have fled Catalonia since the demand for independence has come to the fore. Some of these are large, multinational companies.

She is dismissive of any serious adverse economic consequences. These large companies do not pay tax in Catalonia, or Spain for that matter. They pay their corporate taxes in tax-havens such as Ireland. Ouch!

So, history is being made, not just in Barcelona but all over Catalonia. The outcomes for Spain and the European Union more generally could be profound. Is secession from a national state, within the framework of the EU, possible? This has never been tested before. Scotland came close to raising this vital question but in the end the referendum vote went against the SNP.

Liam is not persuaded by the independentist arguments for reasons that have as much to do with Europe as with Spain or Catalonia.

He wishes for a much greater degree of autonomy, on the model of Quebec within the Canandian State, for the wonderfully distinctive, creative and proud peoples (plural) within Catalonia. He fears another independence vote will prove hugely divisive.

Irene feels he doesn't understand. She favours greater dialogue but points to the intransigence of the Madrid government, not just recently but over many years. Since 2010 at least, Catalans have been considered "ninguneados" (nobodies) by Madrid.

They are being devalued and Madrid is actively promoting a boycott of Catalan products, from Cava to Catalan sausages and Mediterraneans holidays. The PP is exploiting the Catalan question, in a populist way, to win votes elsewhere in Spain.

The leaders of Catalan nationalism are either in prison, as in the case of the head of Esquerra Republicana, Oriol Junqueras, or in exile as in the case of Puigdemont who leads the more moderate nationalist faction. Many PP politicians have been implicated in corruption in recent years, yet few are in prison. The essential point is that Spanish unionists have to come to terms with diversity.

They find this difficult, in part because of Spain's imperial past. So, this election is primarily about national identity, not economics. But Catalonia, as the most developed region of Spain, is capable of riding out the economic storms that may lie ahead.

Difficult situation, difficult times ahead. With exquisite timing FC Barcelona ("much more than a club") are playing Real Madrid in El Clasico on Saturday in Madrid. Could the creative tension between these two great sporting clubs conceivably chart a pathway into the future?

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

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