Breaking up: Pro-independence activists after a symbolic vote on independence for Catalonia from Spain at a polling station in Barcelona on 9 November. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Letter from Barcelona: Inside the battle for Catalan independence

This crisis could have been avoided. In recent years, Madrid has run a masterclass in how not to handle breakaway nationalism.

Barcelona is a city draped in flags. Only a handful of windows surrounding my rented apartment in El Born – a fashionably ramshackle district close to the harbour – are flag-free. From the rest hang Esteladas, the distinctive blue-and-white-starred symbol of Catalan national sovereignty.

Catalonia has become increasingly polarised in recent years as requests for enhanced autonomy – consistently rejected by Madrid – have hardened into demands for outright independence from Spain. Polls suggest as many as 45 per cent of Catalans support secession, while 25 per cent favour federalism and a further 20 per cent support the constitutional status quo.

On 9 November, nationalists staged a non-binding referendum on independence. They won by a huge margin, with 80 per cent voting for separation and 10 per cent voting against, on a turnout of 2.3 million – roughly one-third of the electorate. The majority of pro-Spanish Catalans seem to have stayed at home.

Nonetheless, independence activists are buoyant. Having defied the central government in Madrid, which tried to block the vote, they believe their campaign is unstoppable. The most radical parties, including Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC), the Catalan Republican Left, want to hold plebiscitary elections before divorcing from Spain unilaterally next year. More conservative voices, such as that of Artur Mas, Catalonia’s centre-right president, would rather resume negotiations to secure a legal path to statehood.

In contrast to Scotland, where poorer voters form the bedrock of nationalist support, the Catalan independence movement is dominated by civil society organisations and middle-class professionals. Spain’s economic crisis, coupled with the country’s loss of faith in ruling parties, has persuaded many middle-income Catalans that they would be better off managing their own affairs.

But two significant groups remain opposed to independence. The first is working-class, Spanish-speaking immigrants. “I’m not happy about the vote,” a Kashmiri waiter told me before the referendum. “Independence would be very difficult. Lots of jobs here depend on Spain.”

The second is the Catalan business elite, parts of which have already begun issuing Better Together-style warnings about the financial pitfalls of constitutional change.

Writing in the New York Times, the Madrid-based Peruvian novelist and Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, denounced Catalan nationalism as a “cynical victim posture [that] effaces the individual, fuels imaginary grievances and rejects solidarity”.

But Vargas Llosa’s depiction of Catalan separatism doesn’t fit with my recent experiences. On 7 November, I attended a nationalist rally in downtown Barcelona. The event, floodlit beneath the Olympic Stadium, could not have been more civilised. The speakers delivered politely worded speeches and were received with muted applause. The atmosphere two days later, during the referendum, was similarly benign. There were no reports of scuffles or confrontations between opposing political groups. Barcelona seemed uncharacteristically subdued.

It is unclear what happens next. The ERC is ahead in the polls. Were President Mas to call fresh regional elections, his ruling party, Convergència, which has spent the past 30 years trading on the ambiguities of home-rule politics, would almost certainly find itself relegated to a supporting role in the new Catalan parliament. With the ERC in power, Catalonia’s fraught relationship with Spain would sink even further.

This crisis could have been avoided. In recent years, Madrid has run a masterclass in how not to handle breakaway nationalism. Its belligerent refusal to explore alternative constitutional models – such as a federal settlement granting Catalonia and other wealthy regions greater room for fiscal manoeuvre – is fracturing Spanish unity, at the same time as a centrally imposed programme of austerity cuts has compounded a wider sense of regional impotence.

Yet, for the most part, the Yes voters of Catalonia seem to be motivated by a basic concern for democracy. The more entrenched Spanish resistance to Catalan autonomy becomes, the more likely it is that Catalonia will choose a final, decisive break from Spain. Many moderate Catalan nationalists who once would have settled for more devolution now believe the situation cannot be salvaged. The Spanish central government may be forced to make concessions, but I doubt that the flags in El Born will be coming down soon. 

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Nigel Farage: The Arsonist

Getty
Show Hide image

Has Arlene Foster saved power-sharing in Northern Ireland?

The DUP leader's decision to attend Martin McGuinness' funeral was much more than symbolic. But is Gerry Adams willing to make a deal?

After some prevarication, DUP leader Arlene Foster chose to attend the funeral of Martin McGuinness in Derry today. Her decision to do so cannot have been an easy one.

A substantial part of her loyalist base has noisily resisted attempts to memorialise the late deputy first minister as anything other than an inveterate killer. Foster herself notes in today’s Belfast Telegraph that the former IRA commander was responsible for the deaths of “many neighbours and friends”. And in 1979 – aged just eight – she bore witness to the bloody aftermath of an IRA attack in her own home: her father, a reservist police officer, was shot in the head by a gunman later eulogised by McGuinness.

Her attendance at today’s funeral is thus noteworthy and has been the subject of due praise. She was twice applauded by the congregation: as she took her seat, and after Bill Clinton singled her out in his eulogy. It is, however, much more than the symbolic gesture it might appear.

Last month’s election, which saw the DUP lose 10 seats and unionist parties lose their Stormont majority for the first time in nearly a century, proved Foster to be damaged goods. She was – and remains – tarnished by the RHI scandal but also by her crass behaviour towards the nationalist community, particularly on Irish language issues.

Her carelessly won reputation as a truculent bigot will therefore not be easily lost. Her departure remains a red line for Sinn Fein. But with just four days until the deadline for a new devolution settlement, Foster’s presence at McGuinness’ funeral is the clearest indication yet of the DUP’s carefully calculated strategy. It isn’t quite a resignation, but is nonetheless indicative of the new manner in which Foster has carried herself since her party’s chastening collapse.

She has demonstrated some contrition and offered tacit acknowledgement that her election shtick was misjudged and incendiary. Her statement on McGuinness’ death was delicately pitched and made only oblique reference to his IRA past. In the absence of a willingness to allow Foster to step down, the decision instead has been taken to detoxify her brand.

The conciliatory Foster the DUP will nominate for First Minister on Monday will as such at least appear to be apart from the dogwhistling Foster who fought the election – and her attendance today is the superlative indication of that careful transition. There has been talk that this increases the chance of a deal on a new executive. This is premature – not least because the onus is now almost entirely on Sinn Fein.

Theirs is just as much a mandate to reject Stormont as we know it as it is to return and right the DUP’s wrongs. Gerry Adams, the last member of the Armalite generation standing, has made this abundantly clear – and has hardened his line just as Foster has made sure to be seen magnanimously softening hers. He said last night that he would not tolerate any extension of power-sharing talks beyond Monday’s deadline, and called on Dublin to prevent the UK government from re-instating direct rule.

Though Adams also maintained a deal was still possible in the coming days, his statement augurs badly. As the former UUP leader Lord Empey told me on the day McGuinness died, the Sinn Fein president – the ideologue to McGuinness’ Stormont pragmatist – is now entirely without equal within his party. Though he has set the transition to a new generation of female leaders in train, he remains in total control.

The demand for Dublin’s involvement is also telling: as the leader of the third-biggest party in the Dail, his is an all-Ireland long game. Enda Kenny will soon depart, offering Fianna Fail – riding high in the polls – a useful pretext to renegotiate or scrap their confidence and supply arrangement with his minority government. Sinn Fein are on course to make gains, but implementing Brexit and austerity as partners in a Stormont executive would undermine their populist anti-austerity platform.

As such, Empey predicted McGuinness’ death would allow Adams to exert a disruptive influence on the talks to come. “I don’t think it’ll be positive because for all his faults, Martin was actually committed to making the institutions work,” he said. “I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed – and it was obvious from the latter part of last year that Gerry was reinstating his significant influence in the party. For that reason I think it will make matters more difficult.  I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my sense.”

He is not alone. There was, earlier this week, growing confidence in Westminster that some fudge could be reached on the most contentious issues. It isn't impossible - but Adams’ renewed dominance and rejection of the extended timeframe such negotiations would undoubtedly require suggests a new executive is as unlikely a prospect as it has ever been. With Foster quietly reinventing herself, the DUP could be the big winners come the next election (which could come this year and reinstate a unionist majority) – and the resurgent republicans might well rue the day they squandered their big chance.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.