Thursday 17 January 2019

Tremors will continue to be felt in the aftermath of the political earthquake that shook Madrid

Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez. Photo: Reuters
Spain’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez. Photo: Reuters

Dorcha Lee

A week is a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson once famously said. This has been dramatically proved to be true by the sudden and unexpected collapse of the Spanish Government lead by Mariano Rajoy.

The challenger, Pedro Sanchez, Leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), only submitted his vote of censure motion the previous week. Never before has this political manoeuvre succeeded and many predicted its failure.

Their wrong assumption was that the Basque conservative Party, PNV, would back Rajoy. They thought Rajoy had bought PNV's support with the very generous proposals in the recently agreed budget, which has still to be approved by the Rajoy- controlled Senate.

However, PNV sided with the other Basque and Catalan independence parties, to bring Sanchez to power. To get their support he promised the Catalan Independence parties meaningful dialogue in a better atmosphere, hinting at easing the legal and economic pressures placed on the Catalans.

This is good news for the Catalan nationalists who have become more depressed by the failure of Madrid to ease its legal, political and economic pressures on them, since they won the regional elections on December 21 last year. To bring our Irish readership up to date, it is worth briefly reviewing recent events.

Following the Independence Referendum held by the Regional Government (Generalitat) on October 1 and subsequent UDI Unilateral Declaration of Independence, the Spanish Government suspended the autonomous status of the region and imposed direct rule. Spanish Prime Minister Rajoy dissolved the Catalan Parliament and declared new regional elections. The first Catalan leaders were arrested, on charges related to the organisation of the October 1 Referendum, and ex-president Carles Puigdemont fled to Belgium,

However, the elections produced a narrow majority for the three independence parties, who moved to re-install Puigdemont as Regional President.

Then the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that, to be elected, a candidate must be physically present in the Catalan Parliament. This effectively blocked Puigdemont, whose return would have meant arrest and jail.

Subsequently, 20 more Catalan leaders were indicted on charges of rebellion, embezzlement or disobedience. Some were jailed while several escaped abroad. Puigdemont was arrested in Germany on a European Arrest Warrant requesting his extradition to Spain.

Finally, just two weeks ago and almost five months after the regional elections on December 21, the Regional Parliament elected Quim Torra as the 131st president. Torra is a hard-line nationalist and a close associate of Puigdemont.

In close consultation with Puigdemont, who he regards as the "real" president, Torra has reinstated several former ministers who are in jail or on the run. The long-standing confrontation with Madrid continues, as PM Rajoy refused to sign the necessary Official Gazette to give effect to the ministerial appointments.

The arrested and absent deputies are remembered in Parliament by large yellow ribbons tied to their vacant seats. Many angry Catalan nationalists have accused Madrid of using the Spanish legal system to subvert the democratic process. The nationalist press refers to the incarcerated elected deputies, as 'political prisoners'. A central Government source countered that there are no political prisoners in Spain, only 'imprisoned politicians'.

A precondition for their release to attend in Parliament would be for them to vow to desist from further actions supporting the independence cause. Effectively, to renounce their aspirations for an Independent Catalonia.

Renounce or repent? Sounds a bit like the kind of choice once offered to those facing the Spanish Inquisition. Nationalists claim that Catalan independence is being treated as a heresy by Madrid rather than as a legitimate political aspiration.

What happens next to Puigdemont is of crucial importance. A prolonged delay in Germany is possible should the case be referred to the German Supreme Court.

If extradited to Spain, he will be put in jail in Madrid. If released by the German Courts, he will return to Belgium to lead an executive in exile from his rented house in Waterloo, 16km south of Brussels.

From this house, it was planned that he would internationalise the Catalan situation. He would also guide the Regional Government in Barcelona, and decide on Generalitat policy, with the assistance of a proposed Council of the Republic. The nationalists' main objective is to persuade the Central Government in Madrid to suspend Direct Rule and keep Independence on the political agenda. As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated, as far back as January 17 when questioned by a Catalan MEP in Strasbourg, the only way forward is though dialogue. Madrid has avoided dialogue so far, but with Pedro Sanchez at the helm this is now possible.

Patrick Pearse declared the Irish Republic in 1916, but the Republic was only achieved in 1948. Even then we lost six counties along the way. It is only last October that Puigdemont declared the Catalan Republic. They have a long way to go yet.

Irish Independent

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