Spain’s Conflict With Catalonia Replays Britain’s Failed Conflict With Ireland

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?



  1. More to the point though, another blogger has argued that a Catalan Government in Exile could be a powerful tool against Madrid. At least they’d be free to promote their position, you’d hear little from any of them once they been banged-up, “disappeared” in fact, for 30 years in a Spanish dungeon. Non-persons indeed 😦

    1. But the sight of Carles Puigdemont and his four or five cabinet colleagues being physically dragged by the Guardia Civil from Catalan government offices, surrounded by demonstrators, would have been far more effective in terms of international opinion. Or at least, Irish history would indicate so. I know from some Catalan nationalist opinion that the escape to Belgium has not gone down well with everyone. Especially among the committed Left who were distrustful of Puigdemont’s right-leaning party from the get-go.

      1. Indeed, you’re probably right. At first I though the Catalans must have a Cunning Plan but it seems not. With no very obvious civil resistance, with the Mossos looking like they’ll collaborate and Just Obey Orders, it’s difficult to see what will happen now. The fascists seem to have just strolled in and taken over. Very disappointing really. I imagine the coming elections will be fiddled one way or another … One thing, I’ve entirely changed my mind about the EU. But please explain to me why all the many small member nations have kept quiet?
        As for the actual views of the Catalans, this blogpost is worth a read :

        1. I imagine that the Catalan nationalist movement will try and fight the regional election as a second referendum on independence. However the current disarray and infighting might impede that. That and the interference of the Spanish state will makes any progress extraordinarily difficult.

          Unless pro-independence parties emerge with a combined 60%+ of votes and seats the cause will be lost. That would require a speedy agreement on a pan-nationalist electoral alliance, campaigning and standing under a single banner, embracing right and left. Difficult to see that happening at the moment.

          The behavior of other European nation-sates and the EU has been disgraceful. At the very least, I expected my own country to back calls for an “official” plebiscite to be agreed between Madrid and Barcelona and to be held early next year.

          1. It was a stupid thing to unilaterally declare independence without getting any support from abroad. What did they expect? Immediate diplomatic recognition? And what should the other states have done if the Catalans themselves can’t hold their independence and resist for more than 3 days?

            And in order to have a legal referendum – the Spanish constitution must be amended. This is what those other nation states said:
            We hope that the issue of Catalonia will be resolved by means of dialogue within the framework of Spanish Constitution. Latvia will not recognise the unilaterally declared independence of Catalonia.
            What else did you expect? For other states to say that the Spanish constitution must be ignored?

            1. The Spanish constitution can only be changed with the agreement of all levels of government, and a vote over the whole of Spain. Indeed if you look at the details, the process is so complex and requires so many stages and agreements, often with >50% majorities, that in practice it would be next to impossible to achieve any change. Yet, the constitution of Spain as it stands does not allow any region to break away, and so goes against the internationally recognised Right of Self-determination. So what other option, apart from UDI, did they have?

              Did Latvia ask Russia nicely if they could leave the union, I think the Baltics just all left didn’t they?

              1. It was a bit more complicated than that. There were negotiations with the USSR/Russia in 1990-1991 while the USSR was collapsing. So I would not say that “we just all left”. The August coup was the turning point – after that the USSR collapsed and other countries started to recognise Latvia and the other Baltic states immediately. Iceland did that the next day after the failed coup – before Russia, USA, UK and other “big guys”. We had international support on our side.

                So it’s not comparable with Catalonia. Spain isn’t collapsing and they suspended the Catalan independence without any resistance. While in Latvia there was this:

                So yeah – as we can see – international support is pretty important if you want to declare independence. Catalonia had absolutely none. Not a single country wanted to recognise it. So that UDI was a shitty option that didn’t work.

              2. Unless the Catalans had manned the barricades, or at least taken to the streets and stayed there. Senior regional leaders fleeing Spain pretty much killed that spur to action. Again, the sight of Carles Puigdemont and his ministerial colleagues being dragged from their offices in handcuffs would have galvanised support.

                Simply put, if they were not willing to put their liberty on the line for independence, why should anyone else?

                When Dáil Éireann met for the first time in January 1919 they did so with the threat of arrest and imprisonment hanging over every one of them. But met they did and continued to do so,, defying and taunting the UK authorities to come get them.

                Carles Puigdemont had a fair-sized chunk of the Mossos d’Esquadra, the regional police, which might have stayed loyal to his government. He opted for non-confrontation and so has probably lost everything unless those to his left can pull something out of the bag at the last moment.

  2. I’m surprised ireland has not offered to give them shelter and support!!! in any case the Republican Government in Exile recurs in Catalan history . After 1939 and the defeat of the Spanish Republic, the last one ended up in Mexico and was only disbanded with the signing of the post-Franco Spanish Constitution in 1977 if I’m not mistaken

  3. Prior to the central government’s fascism the sole grievance articulated by Catalonia was desire for a greater input on taxation and spending policies. Their sole justification is that historically it was a different state.

    On that latter point, due to the recent DNA evidence that the Lebanese are the descendents of the Caananites, they have decided to assert their prior claim to Caanan which the Israelites stole from them in a biblical epic of genocide, ethnic cleansing, slavery and slaughter.

    Catalonia does not labour under a single of the repressive, discriminatory, looting-by-taxation and impoverishing edicts that Ireland lived under within the Union.

    If anyone in Spain deserves their independence it is the Basques. If Ireland’s history is analagous to any group in Spain, it is the Basques. One does wonder why the difference in support, the myriad of possible reasons and their weighting.

    It appears to me that the Catalonian independence movement is economic and selfish. For those reasons I do not support their independence movement. Same reasons I thought the partition of Andra Pradesh was a bad idea.

    Of course now that Rajoy has decided to be a fascist one is compelled to support their independence. But let us not be too hasty to map our own dynamic onto yet another conflict, the flag poles and windows will be utterly drownded if we do. And we all are too wrapped up in our N/U dynamic to see things clearly. Emotions, eh? Can’t live without them, because then yer a sociopath.

    1. Oh for sure, I have greater sympathy with the Basques, and many politically-engaged Irish people are closer to that cause than any other. It is more familiar to us. If it had been the Basques rather than the Catalans, I suspect the Irish reaction might have been more voluble. At least from the general public. There is a simpatico with the Basque Country which does not exist with Catalonia. The Basques feel more like “us”, to be crude about it.

      1. That was the situation when I was in undergrad alright. The public at large seems to be up over Catalonia in a way they have never been for the Basques, perhaps its the centenaries.

        DNA sidetrack – Basques are the last remnants of the first HGs to move into Europe. The Basques are the closest genetic relatives the Irish have in Europe. If there are any linguistic holdovers from the Paleolithic the best chance is the Basque language. Unless both are the last remnants of a wave that completely replaced the original HG migrants or their languages were replaced.

        The Med DNA infusion timing is interesting considering what else was happening in the Med in the same timeframe, currently reading James C Scott’s Against the Grain and it’s already a treasure trove.

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