The sleepy agricultural town of Avià struggles to live up to Catalonia’s reputation as Spain’s richest region. On a weekday morning, few people are visible on its streets, which are host to a handful of modest shops and bars.
But perched in the Pyrenean foothills, not far from the French and Andorran borders, it proudly brandishes its status as a hotbed of Catalan separatist feeling.
The large estelada, or Catalan independence flag, painted on to a signpost at the town’s entrance is testament to this. Many more such flags, their red-and-yellow stripes topped by a star, are hanging from windows along the high street, which is named after the Catalan cellist, Pau Casals.
Meanwhile, the words of the separatist priest, Lluís Maria Xirinacs, are daubed on to a wall, appealing to Catalans to “fight against the strong”.
"We're an occupied country," one elderly man, Toni, who prefers not to give his surname, tells The Irish Times when asked why he wants independence from Spain. Speaking in Catalan – he refuses, or is unable, to speak Spanish – he says: "We're a colony of Spain."
That is an extreme sentiment, even in the world of Catalan nationalism. But members of the older generations here remember the centralist repression that followed the 1936-39 civil war. That conflict’s victor,
, sought to eliminate the Catalan, Basque and Galician languages during his brutal four-decade dictatorship.
During that time, independence was so far off it seemed unthinkable. But for younger generations here in the Catalan heartland, it has become a natural goal – and the Spanish state a natural enemy.
“We’re not doing well here,” says María Oliva, a 29-year-old hairdresser who supports the drive to break away from Spain. She says she doesn’t have any friends or family who oppose independence.
“I’ve always felt this way, but when it’s being talked about a lot, you think about it more. It looks more possible now.”
Polls show that Catalans are virtually split down the middle on the issue. But in 2014, in an unofficial referendum, 92 per cent of those who voted in Avià and its surrounding area favoured secession.
In a regional election last year, 87 per cent of the town’s votes went to political parties that want independence.
In Barcelona, a broad front of nationalist politicians is working to make that dream a reality. Defying the conservative Spanish government and the courts, in recent months they have been laying the groundwork for what they call “disconnection” from Spain, by preparing legislation in the Catalan parliament.
In the autumn of 2017, they plan to stage a binding referendum in the region – with or without Madrid’s approval – which they believe will trigger full secession.
“We’re supposed to receive financial help from the Catalan government,” Avià’s mayor, Patrocini Canal, says. “But it doesn’t come, because the regional government doesn’t receive the money from Madrid. And you can see this in every town – education, social services, infrastructure – the regional government just hasn’t got the money.”
Canal is part of an independent group of locals who govern Avià, without a defined ideology. Like their nationalist counterparts in the regional parliament, their only common denominator is a rejection of the Spanish state.
“In the end, I want to believe that our children and grandchildren will live in a free country,” she says. “So many things have happened that we feel Spain is forcing us to take this decision.”
For many Catalans, those grievances began in earnest a decade ago after the regional government negotiated a new autonomy statute in 2006 with the Socialist central government, which was then approved by a referendum and the national congress.
Despite the apparent consensus, the conservative Popular Party (PP) lodged an appeal, claiming the statute had devolved too much power. In 2010, the constitutional court partially agreed, leaving several of the document’s clauses without effect.
This legal wrangle cemented the idea in many Catalans’ minds that not only was the PP aggressively centralist, but that the Spanish state as a whole could not be trusted.
Since then, Catalonia’s government has put its weight behind an already existing grassroots project for independence and the conflict with Madrid has escalated.
Every few weeks, it seems, yet another episode highlights and amplifies the tensions. In October, the constitutional court drew the anger of both nationalists and animal rights campaigners when it overturned a five-year-old ban on bullfighting in the region introduced by the Catalan parliament.
Another example was on November 4th, when police detained Montserrat Venturós, the mayor of Berga, near Avià, and marched her to court after she had ignored a judicial summons for flying the independence flag from the town hall during two recent election campaigns.
Most recently, on November 21st, the supreme court confirmed a three-year suspension for the judge, Santiago Vidal, for having drawn up a hypothetical draft constitution for a Catalan republic.
“I was deeply disappointed to see that, once again, today in Spain there is not a real separation of powers between the judiciary, which is supposed to be independent, and the executive,” Vidal says in his Madrid office.
Since his suspension began in 2015, Vidal has become a senator for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC), which is part of the region’s secessionist governing coalition. When asked if his own actions also risked politicising the judiciary, he insists he drew up the draft constitution in his own time and its subject matter did not coincide with cases he was handling.
Vidal is 62 but he converted relatively late to the independence cause, shortly after the PP’s 2006 appeal against the revised Catalan statute.
For a decade or more now, he says, “we’ve been seeing a reversal, a constant recentralisation of powers and funds”. He cites an “almost Third World rail network” in Catalonia as an example of Madrid’s disdain for his region and also lists the erosion of the region’s healthcare service and the undermining of the Catalan language at an official level.
With Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy embarking on a second term, this time with a minority government, some of his new appointments suggest he is more willing to reach out to the Catalan independence movement.
Many commentators, meanwhile, believe the separatists prefer the hostility they have become used to from Madrid, as it drives recruitment to their cause.
For Vidal and many of his fellow separatists, particularly in towns like Avià, the charm offensive is too little, too late.
Disregarding the obstacles put in the movement’s way by the Spanish government and judiciary, Vidal says only internal frictions within the pro-independence coalition, or an adverse result in next year’s planned referendum, can stop the process now.
“We are 100 per cent determined to achieve independence for Catalonia,” he says. “And we have a 50 per cent chance of managing it.”