In the general election of December 1918 the revolutionary Irish republican and nationalist party, Sinn Féin, took 73 of the available 105 seats allocated to Ireland in the House of Commons, the parliament of the so-called “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. The Irish Parliamentary Party, a nationalist-regionalist grouping favouring some form of quasi-autonomy or federalism for Ireland within the UK, took just 6 seats, a huge loss for a conservative organisation that once dominated the domestic politics of the country. In contrast the pro-UK British unionist parties on the island gained 26 seats, divided between the majority Irish Unionist Alliance (from which the Ulster Unionist Party would soon emerge), the minority Ulster Unionist Labour Association and a sole independent unionist.
With nearly 70% of the elected MPs for Ireland coming from SF the party, as promised in its campaign, came together on January 21st 1919 to form Dáil Éireann, a new national parliament for an independent nation-state of Ireland. Ratifying the revolutionary republic proclaimed in the Easter Rising of 1916 this assembly quickly set about establishing a cabinet-government (Aireacht), a constitution (Bunreacht Dála Éireann), a judiciary (Cúirteanna na Dála), and control over a police and military force (drawn from the existing Irish Republican Army of 1916, principally the Irish Volunteers). All these acts of sovereignty were accompanied by the issuing of a declaration of independence and a multilingual address to the free nations of the world. Unsurprisingly the British colonial authorities in Ireland and their unionist allies responded to this burgeoning Irish democracy with repression, engaging in mass arrests, imprisonments, the banning of key political, social and cultural organisations or of their work, censorship, political exiling, intimidation and violence.
And we all know how well those policies fared in the months and years to follow.
Given the above some might see some parallels in the situation pertaining in early 20th Ireland and that currently taking place in early 21st century Catalonia. In recent weeks the main Catalan political parties and groupings, both progressive republicans and more conservative nationalist-regionalists, have negotiated and launched a diverse pan-nationalist front – similar to the revolutionary-era Sinn Féin – to contest local devolved elections expected this September, on a platform of independence from Spain. Early reports indicate that the move has been a great success, boosting a campaign for sovereignty that seemed to have been faltering since the start of the summer.
“It was an awkward photo opportunity: King Felipe VI posing next to the regional premier of Catalonia, Artur Mas, ahead of their hour-long meeting at the royal palace in Madrid in mid-July. In the company of most politicians, the king tends to appear relaxed and jovial, but as the press cameras clicked away and Mas attempted some small talk, the monarch looked decidedly tense.
The king’s concern is understandable. On Monday, Mas announced formally a Catalan regional election for September 27th, which pro-independence parties and civic groups, all running on a shared ticket, are treating as a plebiscite on independence. If the nationalist Mas and his allies win, they plan to push ahead with a process that would see an independent Catalan state in existence in 2016 or 2017.
Support for independence had dipped in the polls since Mas staged an unofficial referendum on the issue in November. In addition, the rise of the anti-austerity Podemos party appeared to offer Catalans who were unhappy with traditional Spanish politics an alternative to independence. Meanwhile, Mas’s centre-right Convergence party was having trouble agreeing with the powerful Catalan Republican Left (ERC) on how to proceed towards a breakaway from Spain.
But the announcement of the united electoral platform has given the independence camp momentum and made its goal suddenly look more feasible than it did a few weeks ago.
Unveiled on July 21st, the Junts pel Sí (“Together for Yes”) electoral list’s candidates include Mas and ERC leader Oriol Junqueras, the most visible political figures of the movement. But in an unusual move, the list also includes members of two major nationalist civic groups: the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) and Òmnium Cultural. In a further attempt to broaden the list’s appeal, soccer coach Pep Guardiola also figures on it.
At the presentation of the list, the candidates said that if they got a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament they would immediately declare intent to push ahead with independence. That would be followed by the drafting of a Catalan constitution, to be approved via referendum, in a process they expect to take between six and 18 months and which they envisage culminating in the creation of a new state.”
All of which sounds very familiar indeed for an Irish readership. Let’s hope that the Spanish have a lot more sense – and a far greater respect for democracy – in Catalonia 2015 than the British did in Ireland 1918.