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Diarmaid Ferriter: Ireland’s complex ties with Catalonia

Republicans have a long history with Catalan nationalists, despite their significant differences

A demonstrator waves a Catalan separatist flag in Madrid, Spain. Photograph: Paul Hanna/Reuters

In seeking to smash the ballot boxes and the voters in last Sunday's referendum on independence for Catalonia, the Spanish authorities inevitably scored a spectacular own goal, and managing the fallout will be tortuous.

It also creates complications for other EU countries, and the news this week that the Irish Cabinet clashed over how to respond was hardly surprising given our own history and the instinctive empathy of many Irish for the right of nationalist regions to self-determination.

Historically, there have been many varieties of Catalan nationalism. In 1886, one of the leading Catalan nationalists, Valentí Almirall, published Lo Catalanisme, outlining a transition from regionalism to nationalism within a federalist framework while highlighting Catalan economic interests.

That same year saw the introduction of the doomed first Irish Home Rule Bill, the main political goal for Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell, and Almirall was sometimes referred to during that decade as the "Catalan Parnell".


Almirall also cited the inspirational example of the Irish Land League, but he remained a figure who, in the view of some historians, fell between two stools, “too Catalanist for the republicans and too republican for the Catalanists”.

Irish republicans saw Catalonia as fertile ground when drumming up support during the War of Independence.

Minister for foreign affairs George Plunkett reported in January 1921 that in Catalonia "our movement is supported mainly by those who desire to secure a distinctive government for the Catalans. Hence the press in Barcelona is strongly pro-Irish.

“The friendship for Ireland extends over a very large area. I have received information regarding the holding of meetings and the delivery of lectures from no less than 15 centres in Catalonia alone.”

Sinn Féin envoy George Gavan Duffy travelled across Europe and wrote back to Robert Brennan, secretary of the Dáil Éireann department of foreign affairs, about a trip to Spain: "I do not think there is a country in Europe where we are held in such high honour and affection, although the Madrid people are outdone in zeal for Ireland by the Catalans in Barcelona."

At a much later stage, in 1968, John de Courcy Ireland, addressing a Sinn Féin meeting in Wicklow and criticising what he saw as the lack of support from Ireland at the UN for the rights of African and Asian peoples, noted that “even Mr de Valera had his moments in the Irish internationalist tradition, seen in his message to the people of Catalonia in Spain in 1929 urging them to press on for national independence and a quotation from this message headed the propaganda leaflets issued by the Catalonians who supported the Spanish Republic against Franco in the Spanish Civil War”.

De Valera came under fierce pressure to declare for Franco during that war, but insisted on neutrality.

Obvious differences

There were, however, obvious differences between the Catalan and Irish causes. Historically, Catalans’ attachment to their language was much stronger than in Ireland, and Catalonia’s economic and industrial strength was far superior – it was far from an impoverished colony.

The Irish who fought against Franco’s forces in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War would have seen themselves more as socialist republicans than as Catalan nationalists.

During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the IRA sought to make common cause, not with Catalan nationalists but with the Basques and ETA's campaign of violence.

Nonetheless, parallels between Irish and Catalan nationalisms will be made, and during the week, the 1918 general election vote in Ireland that saw Sinn Féin triumph and demand independence from the UK has been widely cited.

That framework of interpretation, however, is not going to be part of the narrative of Leo Varadkar’s reaction.

What will be a challenge now for European governments is devising a response to a shift in Catalonia from a demand for the right to self-determination to an insistence by many on outright secession, and whether this can be realistically deemed an internal Spanish matter.

The idea of "cultural nations within Spain" – Catalonia, the Basque Country and perhaps Galicia – has long been spoken about as something that could be managed within an elaborate federalism, but it is a balancing act that has been thrown into disarray, and now Europe will be appealed to by both sides of the current divide in Spain.

Ironically, when discussing nationalism in the early 1990s, Benedict Anderson, the author of Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, suggested it was possible to be optimistic about how nationalism and reactions to it would evolve.

The more Ireland “was encased in a sort of blanket of European institutions the less it was going to be a zero-sum game of either you are here or you are there”, and throughout Europe, EU membership would reduce “the emotional load of the idea of sovereignty”.

Given what happened last week, that no longer holds true for Madrid and Catalonia, nor for the EU and the Irish Cabinet.