When Sinn Féin emerged with an electoral landslide from the December 1918 general election in the then United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, British officials were shocked and dismayed at the scale of the revolutionary party’s achievements. Despite widespread expectations of a separatist surge, no one foresaw SF candidates taking almost every parliamentary constituency on the island (bar some conservative nationalist and unionist holdouts in parts of Ulster and Leinster). Several weeks later, in late January 1919, the sixty-nine elected MPs for SF met not at the Palace of Westminster in London but at the Mansion House in Dublin where they established Dáil Éireann: the national legislature of an independent nation-state. The reaction of the UK authorities over the previous month resulted in a significant number of the new Teachtaí Dála being listed as Faoi ghlas ag na Gaill “Imprisoned by the Foreigner”. Despite this, a republican parliament and government would eventually assert its authority over the country, formerly ratifying the Irish Republic proclaimed during the 1916 Easter Rising, and demanding an end to seven centuries of colonial rule by Britain.
Unfortunately for the history of the two neighbouring islands, the United Kingdom rejected the pro-independence votes of the people of Ireland, as expressed in the plebiscite-election of 1918, and in three further local and general elections from 1920 to 1921. A bloody three-year war left the UK humiliated, losing four-fifths of its colony in the country to Irish self-rule. It’s sole major victory came with the partitioning of the disputed fifth from the rest of the island, making the region a never-ending source of conflict and bitterness to the present day.
It seems that Spain has foolishly adopted Britain’s past Irish policy in relation to Catalonia’s present bid for sovereignty. Refusing for the last two years to countenance an agreed independence referendum for the semi-autonomous region, the stubbornness of the “unionist” government in Madrid pushed the local nationalist administration in Barcelona into staging its own successful plebiscite on the 1st of October. However using violence and the threat of violence, the national authorities tried to prevent, disrupt and eventually overturn that vote. Using further draconian measures, the centre has now forced the periphery to take further unilateral steps, including a formal declaration of a Catalan Republic by the nationalist-dominated, regional legislature. Steps which could have been delayed or negotiated in a peaceful and ordered manner if the Spanish government had not defaulted back to Franco-era authoritarianism.
The latest reports from the Iberian peninsula claim that the leading lights of the Catalan nationalist movement, including provincial premier Carles Puigdemont, have fled to Belgium, with rumours of applications for political asylum running rife. If true, it doesn’t cast the former members of the forcibly removed regional government in a particularly good light. The one thing we Irish know above all else is the value of a good political martyr or two. Substituting the famous phrase, “Imprisoned by the Foreigner”, with the rather more ignoble “Ran away from imprisonment by the Foreigner” doesn’t have quite the same ring or power to it. However, what type of Europe are we living in at the start of the 21st century, where democratically elected members of a local administration in a member state of the European Union find it necessary to flee their families and homes to seek political asylum elsewhere in the multinational bloc? And what kind of country is the contemporary Kingdom of Spain that its citizens need to seek freedom and security outside of its authoritarian borders?