Monday 20 August 2018

A bluffer's guide to the fight for Catalan independence

Confused by events in Spain... oops, sorry, Catalonia? You're definitely not the only one, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Catalan T-shirt
Catalan T-shirt

Eilis O'Hanlon

That's a nice T-shirt.

Glad you like it. I bought it on a city break to Barcelona. It's the Estelada.

Dialogue: Peaceful protesters chanting ‘Let’s talk’ at a demonstration at Cibeles Square in Madrid. Similar marches across the country called on Catalan and Spanish cooperation. Photo: Getty Images
Dialogue: Peaceful protesters chanting ‘Let’s talk’ at a demonstration at Cibeles Square in Madrid. Similar marches across the country called on Catalan and Spanish cooperation. Photo: Getty Images

The what?

The Catalan flag. It's flown everywhere in the Paisos Catalans, as the locals say. It's based on the flag of Cuba.

That famous bastion of democracy and free speech.

There's no need for sarcasm. The star is a symbol of independence. And across the back it says Viva Catalonia! In Catalan, obviously.

One of the ballot papers printed for the vote (Bob Edme/AP)
One of the ballot papers printed for the vote (Bob Edme/AP)

I had no idea you were such a big supporter of Catalonian separatism.

Well, I wasn't, to be honest. Not until…

You saw pictures on the news of Spanish police roughing up voters trying to take part in the recent independence referendum?

Exactly. Since then I've read lots of stuff on Facebook and Twitter about it, and now I'm a dedicated Catalan.

Spanish National Police officers stand in front of their hotel before leaving in police vehicles in Pineda de Mar, Barcelona. Photo: REUTERS
Spanish National Police officers stand in front of their hotel before leaving in police vehicles in Pineda de Mar, Barcelona. Photo: REUTERS

It's more complicated than that, though, isn't it?

Is it?

Of course. There are eight million people living in the region and they don't all want to break away from Spain. They like being Spanish and Catalonian.

I never met any of them when I was there on holiday.

Protesters in Catalonia (AP)
Protesters in Catalonia (AP)

Maybe your T shirt put them off from expressing an opinion. Plenty of anti-independence Catalans keep their mouths shut for fear of outraging angry nationalists. Alternatively, they might have thought it was none of your business.

We are all Catalans now.

The last time we met, you said we were all Europeans now, and that borders should be coming down, not being put back up again.

That was different.

You also said Spain had a right to Gibraltar because the constitution said the country was "indivisible".

A street cleaner removes a torn
A street cleaner removes a torn "estelada", or Catalonia independence flag, left on a bench in Girona, Spain (AP)

La, la, la, not listening.

If memory serves, you even said that the Brits were mad for voting for Brexit.

They certainly were.

So 17 million Britons voting for independence from Europe in an official referendum is a sign of insanity, but two million Catalans voting for independence in an illegal referendum that was overwhelmingly boycotted by people who want to stay part of Spain is fine?

Yes.

Read more: Catalonia 'will declare independence within days', says region's president

Well, I'm glad we cleared that one up. Aren't you a little worried, all the same, about where this is leading?

What do you mean?

Big firms including energy companies and banks are already drawing up plans to pull out of Catalonia if the region's leader Carles Puigdemont goes ahead with a plan to unilaterally declare independence this week.

Who needs jobs anyway?

The Catalans, for one. They live in one of Spain's richest regions, and now they face the prospect of being kicked out of the European Union, including the eurozone and the single market. If the Brits, with the fifth biggest economy in the world, are crazy for leaving the EU, surely the Catalans must be heading for Mel Gibson levels of lunacy for planning to do the same?

Freedom comes at a price.

Even if the price is violence? The scenes in Catalonia are eerily reminiscent of events in the North that sparked the Troubles.

Indeed they are. That's why the Spanish government should learn the lessons of Northern Ireland and not provoke the people by being so heavy handed.

You'll get no quarrel from me there. No one's saying Madrid is handling the situation well, although the government has apologised for police brutality. But shouldn't pro-independence protesters also learn the lessons of Northern Ireland?

I don't follow you.

I'm saying it's better to work incrementally towards change rather than running headlong into a fight. The crisis has already led to a resurgence of Spanish patriotism across the rest of the country. Two groups of nationalists with an inflated sense of grievance is rarely a recipe for harmony.

Viva Catalonia!

I don't think you're really listening. I would have thought at least that Ireland's experience of extreme nationalism would make us more wary of encouraging it in other countries, but apparently not.

Catalonia will fight and Catalonia will be right.

Are you just parroting slogans now?

Sorry, I get most of my information from social media these days so I tend to think in hashtags. Besides, Puigdemont has called for dialogue with Spain, so it's not his fault if Prime Minister Rajoy refuses to play ball.

But doesn't Catalonia, like all of Spain's 17 'autonomous communities', already have extensive powers over education, healthcare and welfare, as well as having its own police force?

Yes, but…

And doesn't the law require public officials to use the Catalan language?

Maybe so. People still have a right to self-determination.

Just Catalonia, or other Catalan countries too? Some nationalists want to join up with other areas that share a Catalan heritage, such as Andorra, the Balearic Islands, bits of France and Sardinia, as well as parts of Aragon.

I thought he was a character from Lord Of The Rings?

That's Aragorn. Aragon is an ancient kingdom that now forms one of Spain's autonomous communities. There are plenty of Catalans living there. Do you think they should have the right to break away too?

I don't know. I'd have to check with the words of Els Segadors. That's the Catalonian anthem of resistance. I have it on my iPod. Let's see. "Strike with your sickle, defenders of the land. Strike with your sickle." Admittedly, it is a bit short on detail.

Sounds quite warlike.

You can't make a Spanish omelette without breaking eggs. Our national anthem is A Soldier's Song, after all. Surely you haven't forgotten all the lines about fighting for Ireland midst "cannon's roar and rifle's peal"?

Fair enough.

What's your solution anyway? International mediation? I've heard they might even send over former taoisigh Brian Cowen and Enda Kenny to broker a deal.

I wouldn't wish that on anyone. The Catalans have suffered enough.

Then what about national all-party talks and fresh elections, as proposed by the Spanish government?

Beats me. I never said I was an expert. You're the one with the T-shirt.

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