Saturday 16 December 2017

Protests fuelled by the romantic side of secession

Catalan separatists say they won the October 1 referendum (AP)
Catalan separatists say they won the October 1 referendum (AP)
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

The clanging of metal is a familiar sound on Barcelona's narrow and towering city centre streets.

Normally the jarring sound is accompanied by a cry of "Butano" as butaneros, people selling and delivering gas canisters to city centre apartments, announce their arrival in neighbourhoods. It feels wrong that someone outside your bedroom window can justifiably wake you by shouting and banging as they walk past, but it is a tradition that dates back to the Franco era.

Last week, the clanking metallic sounds filling the streets were of a different tone. Local objectors took to their balconies and terraces banging kitchen pots and pans in a show of defiance against Spain's King and Prime Minister. This has been done in the past to express dissatisfaction with the Spanish monarchy and the central government's refusal to recognise Catalonia's apparent yearnings for independence. But, last week's 'pots and pans protest' was a rebellion against the threat of a bigger stick being used to beat them down.

Images of police brutality with the aim of thwarting a democratic, yet illegal, process shocked the world. Catalans in Spain are unhappy because the region accounts for 20pc of Spanish GDP, a quarter of Spanish exports and roughly the same amount of foreign investment. But, Catalonia pays more in taxes than it gets back in the form of infrastructure, schools and hospitals.

Catalonia was suppressed during Franco's reign but following his death it was given greater autonomy in Spain's 1978 constitution. This was approved by more than 90pc of Catalan voters and allowed for a Barcelona-based regional government (the Generalitat) to control Catalonia's culture, environment, communications, transportation, commerce and public safety. However, responsibility for justice, health and education was to be shared with Madrid.

The region's autonomy was enhanced further in 2006 after a referendum vote expanded the Generalitat's powers and financial clout and crucially slipped in the word "nation" in relation to Catalonia. However, turnout was low and the result questioned. Spain's Constitutional Court reversed much of this in 2010, to the anger of the regional authorities and tensions have been rising since.

Madrid's government has not eased these concerns. Catalonia suffered during the global economic downturn and had to turn to Madrid for financial aid. This has escalated the financial theme to the secessionist story.

Since then, the independence movement has become as much about money as social identity. While Catalonia has always perceived itself as being different to the rest of Spain, with its own distinct language and culture, a row about money and leaving Spain so it doesn't have to share its riches with poorer parts of the country is hardly a romanticist's idea of a worthy nationalist cause.

This, and the fact the Catalan government forced through proposals to hold last weekend's illegal referendum mean the cries for secession have mainly fallen on deaf ears across the rest of Spain. Nonetheless, the cause grew and captured attention in the towns and cities of Catalonia. Every street has a Catalan flag or independence slogan in an apartment window. Stands and pop-up tents regularly feature on city squares, canvassing support and creating awareness of the independence movement. However, that support, despite last weekend's vote, is hard to gauge.

The figures put out by the Catalan government after last week's vote shows unanimous support for succession. What these figures do not reveal is that a clear majority of Catalans did not endorse independence.

Of the 2.26m votes cast, 90pc were in favour of secession. This is less than 40pc of the Catalan electorate - so the majority of voters have remained silent. Some of these will favour succession, some will not, but a significant portion of Catalans who were eligible to vote chose not to take part in the illegal poll.

What the poll does show is that those supporting succession were most determined to vote. This was best demonstrated by the Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, who outwitted the police helicopters following him to his polling station last weekend.

However, with no mediation in sight, the Butaneros may not be the only ones causing a racket on the streets of Barcelona for the foreseeable future. All Puigdemont has done with the referendum, aligned with the Madrid-imposed violence, is drive a wedge between both sides, forcing them further apart.

Sunday Independent

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