Catalonia may ultimately have to decide whether to accept Spanish rule or resist
Seperatists are quick to quote the “Irish solution” of 1918-1919, they are decidedly uncomfortable in discussing the sequel
Catalans gather for the closing rally of the parlimentary elections held last weekend. Photograph: Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Catalan nationalists have been studying Irish history. Frustrated in their attempts to get Madrid’s approval for a legal independence referendum, they have been inspired by the first Dáil. As we know, in December 1918 the UK general election produced a majority of Irish MPs in favour of independence. In January 1919 they convened in Dublin and proclaimed the Republic.
Similarly, last Sunday’s election victory for pro-independence parties in the Catalan assembly elections will be used by various Catalan nationalist parties to emulate the Irish actions of 1918-1919. Their pre-election commitment to convene and declare independence within 18 months has put Madrid and Barcelona on a collision course.
The rise of separatism in Catalonia presents a real problem for Spain and highlights the inflexibility of the Spanish constitution in dealing with this crisis. Unlike the case of Scotland, there is no legal mechanism in Spain to allow an autonomous region or community to secede. Unlike the UK, there are no plans in Spain to devolve sufficient powers to head off disintegration. The stakes are high. The Basques are watching from the sidelines, and pro-Catalan sentiment is rising in Valentia and Majorca.
While Catalan nationalists are quick to quote the “Irish solution” of 1918-1919, they are decidedly uncomfortable in discussing the sequel, when London refused to recognise the first Dáil and arrested many of its leaders.
The result was the War of Independence and civil war. The real lesson of Irish history is clear. Should Madrid reject the Barcelona initiative, Catalan nationalists may ultimately have to decide whether to accept Spanish rule or resist.
Catalonia today has too much to lose, and nationalists realise future coexistence with a sizeable unionist minority in Catalonia would be possible only if independence was achieved peaceably. No one wants a divided Catalonia.
The issue of resistance is so sensitive that even a modest attempt last year by the Catalan assembly to develop a post-independence defence policy came to a sudden halt. The assembly defence section produced a series of papers covering a strategic analysis, a defence policy framework, proposals for Catalan defence forces and a comparative study of other smaller European armed forces, including Ireland.
The defence papers had hit a raw anti-military nerve in the Catalan psyche.
Since the papers’ publication last year their authors have receded into the shadows. They now continue their defence assessment as an independent military study group.
The government in Madrid is on track to introduce reforms to the Spanish constitutional court, empowering it to fine or suspend civil servants or politicians who disobey its rulings. It can also take legal means to bring the armed Catalan police force, Mossos d’Esquadra, under direct control.
Already there are calls in Madrid from certain quarters to use all means available to stop Catalonia becoming independent. Some retired military officers have pointed out the “indissoluble unity of Spain” in the constitution, and the constitutional mission of the armed forces “to guarantee the independence and sovereignty of Spain”, including “defending its integrity”.
Perhaps we should not pay too much attention to ultranationalistic rhetoric from old retired colonels. Nevertheless, the fact is that the average Spanish person is appalled at the prospect of Catalonia breaking away from Spain, and would, if it came to it, approve of direct action to retain national unity. There is no sympathy in “mainland” Spain for an independent Catalonia, and nor are there any votes in it.
With the Spanish general election due to take place before or on the 20th December, whatever government emerges in Madrid its top priority will still be to maintain Spanish national unity.
Catalan nationalists love to quote Charles Stewart Parnell’s powerful affirmation: “No man has a right to say to his country: ‘Thus far shalt thou go, and no further.’” The question is: how far towards independence can Catalonia really go?
Dorcha Lee is a retired army colonel and a commentator on defence issues