I imagine that few people outside Northern Ireland would disagree with the statement that the North is one of the most politically backward regions in Western Europe. The reasons are numerous and well-known: 30 years of destabilising and for a long time seemingly insoluble civil conflict; a politics largely determined by 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and empire loyalism on one side, early 20th century irredentist nationalism on the other; the archaic militarism of Orange marches and republican hunger strike commemorations; little or no strategy for the social and economic improvement of its people, with high unemployment, low productivity and heavy dependence on subsidies from central government; and now the longest period without a coherent system of government of any European nation or region this century. Future historians will surely be dumbfounded at the failure to secure a working government over issues as marginal and eminently soluble as the Irish language and marriage equality.
My wife and I have just returned from a holiday in Catalonia, one of Europe’s most prosperous, progressive and sophisticated regions, with a capital, Barcelona, which is one of the world’s great cities and a proud record of defending democracy against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. But I saw some worrying signs in that ancient civilised region (a rich province of the Roman empire 2000 years ago) of a society facing the danger of deepening divisions between nationalists and unionists: nationalists who want Catalan independence and unionists who want to remain part of Spain.
In our small Costa Brava seaside resort there were Catalan flags, posters demanding the release of political prisoners and yellow ribbons protesting their imprisonment on every surface: on balconies, park and seafront railings, beaches and in people’s lapels. The mayor, chairman of a group of pro-independence town mayors, had even proposed putting yellow crosses on the town’s beaches.
This pattern was repeated in the region’s major cities, Barcelona and Girona. While we were there, a woman whose children were removing yellow ribbons from railings in a Barcelona park was hit in the face and had her nose broken. In Girona people associated with the largest party in the Catalan parliament, the unionist Ciudadanos (‘Citizens’), wore hoods to do the removing. This will not end well.
Catalan nationalism, unlike its Basque equivalent, has always prided itself on being completely peaceful, and in the past being more concerned with the independence of its culture and language rather than political independence. But the fierceness of the separatist language and the ubiquity of the pro-independence symbols were striking to the visitor this year (we have been holidaying in the same seaside resort for the past six years and like journalists on holiday everywhere, closely peruse the local papers).
The difference is what happened on 1st October last year. Then an outlawed and chaotic independence referendum was held with a 43% turn-out, in which over 90% of those voting opted for independence. The poll was marred by violent attacks on voters by the Spanish police, who blocked polling stations to try to prevent people voting. Earlier the Catalan parliament had stated that independence would be binding with a simple majority, without requiring a minimum turnout. However this was clearly illegal under Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy, which requires a two thirds majority in that parliament for any change to the region’s status. It was also declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court following a request by the Spanish government. After an abortive declaration of independence, nine independence leaders were jailed to await trial on a range of charges, while five more, including then regional president Carles Puigdemont, fled into exile.
Since then there has been a regional election, which saw the pro-nationalist coalition returned with an increased 70 to 65 seat majority; a change of government in Madrid, with the more conciliatory socialists, led by Pedro Sanchez, re-opening a long stalled dialogue with the Catalan nationalists, but a new, even more hard-line anti-Spanish separatist leader, Quim Torra, in Barcelona. While the new government has offered a new referendum on improving Catalonia’s self-governing powers, Torra has insisted that only “a referendum on self-determination will resolve the conflict.”
In a recent article the new Spanish foreign minister, Josep Borrell, a former European Parliament president, warned that the drive for independence was dividing Catalan society into two halves with the increasing risk of a highly damaging confrontation. The pluralism of a society that was bilingual, culturally diverse and with multiple identities was in danger. He said a fundamentalist nationalism with undertones of xenophobia, which preached that Catalonia was an an oppressed colony of Spain, could lead to a ‘Kosovo solution’ in the region.¹
Kosovo is a disputed, corrupt and mainly Albanian state, which declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 2008, but still contains large pockets of Serbs who angrily proclaim their loyalty to Serbia. There re-partition is back on the negotiating table. While we were in Catalonia, there was a proposal from the presidents of Kosovo and Serbia that mostly Serb northern Kosovo would be returned to Belgrade’s rule but other Serb enclaves would remain part of Kosovo, while a mainly Albanian area of southern Serbia would be transferred to Albania. This is apparently aimed at helping the two countries establish normal relations after a bitter little war in 1998-1999 (complete with massacres of civilians by both sides), which is what they have to do if they are to have any chance of joining the European Union. However other senior Albanian politicians have reacted with horrified astonishment, warning that such a re-partition would risk triggering the kind of terrible ethnic and border conflicts that convulsed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
To Irish observers, all this is depressingly familiar. We too have a society in the North divided down the middle between unionists and nationalists, with changing a national border – if necessary by a hair’s breadth 50% + 1 vote – being proposed by one party as the deeply destabilising ‘solution’ to that division. “Accelerated reunification post-Brexit” is how I heard Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney describing it earlier this month. And of course the dreadful Brexit is driving a new wedge between the two communities there so that 20 years of hard toil to build a multiple identity and culturally diverse society is now in jeopardy.
Similar divisions based on fearful national identity and suspicion of the immigrant and the outsider are growing in countries as different as Italy and Sweden, Germany and Hungary. Is it too simplistic to see all this as akin to the ‘Ulsterisation’ of Europe?
ENDNOTE (1) My experience is that even moderate Irish nationalists in the Republic find it difficult to be objective when the word ‘unionist’ is used. Their default position is that unionist equals bad. Please bear in mind that I am using ‘unionist’ in the above article in its Spanish-Catalan context, so don’t instinctively take the side of separatist Catalans simply because they are nationalist. [God knows how we’re going to cope if 900,000 of those ‘bad’ people become citizens of a united Ireland in a few decades or so!]
ENDNOTE (2): In contradiction to my opening paragraph, I have to say that at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month, I was hugely impressed by some of the civil society speakers from Northern Ireland. The panel on the second day on ‘bridging the gaps’ in the divided North consisted of Monica McWilliams, former leader of the Women’s Coalition, in the chair; Roisin McDonough, Chief Executive of the Arts Council, talking about the role of story-telling and drama; Judith Thompson, Commissioner for Victims and Survivors (who is originally from England), on those people still suffering from the legacy of the conflict; Bob Collins, former Chief Commissioner of the Equality Commission (who is from the South) on the success so far of the 1916-1923 centenary commemorations; and Duncan Morrow, Director of Community Engagement at University of Ulster and former CEO of the Community Relations Council, who delivered a brilliant dissection of the failures of reconciliation and the shortcomings of the Good Friday Agreement. When a society has such leading citizens, there must still be real hope for its future. I wish the same could be said of the political speakers: the deeply unimpressive Secretary of State, Karen Bradley; the fervent Sinn Fein chairman, Declan Kearney (he must terrify the life out of unionists!) and the young stand-in for Arlene Foster (do DUP leaders ever turn up at events where people might disagree with them?), Christopher Stalford.
¹ ‘Lo peor aun puede estar por llegar’, El Periodico, 2 September 2018