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Catalan independence: 'Ireland came into being as a result of a similar "illegal" action'

To deny Catalans the right to a referendum will likely only win converts to the cause of independence, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor, Irish history

THE CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS in Spain is deepening. On Wednesday, Spanish police detained 13 Catalan government officials in an effort to prevent a referendum on Catalan independence from taking place on October 1.

At the heart of the issue is Spain’s inability to balance nationalist sentiments with democratic demands. A lot of people misunderstand the relationship between democracy and nationalism. They think of nationalism as an authoritarian ideology that holds no place in a representative democracy. But in reality, the two are inextricably linked.

Notions of democracy and nationalism

For much of European history, legitimate political authority derived from one source: God. Kings claimed the right to rule because their position was the will of the divine.
The French Revolution dramatically changed the political landscape, in that it simultaneously gave birth to our modern conceptions of democracy and nationalism.

The source of authority became the will of the people. This “will of the people” was to be demonstrated by democratic elections. And the people whose will was to be obeyed were the people of the “nation”.

The scale of the change brought about by this can be shown with a few anecdotes. Louis XIV, king of France for much of the seventeenth century, famously said “I am the State”. Meanwhile, Louis XVI, when told in 1788 that a proposed action of his was illegal, responded “it is legal because I will it so”. In other words, kings answered to no-one, and certainly not to “the people”.

But when Napoleon decided to make himself emperor in 1804, or when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, they used plebiscites to give legitimacy to their actions. Even though both dictators wielded far more power than any monarch ever did, they still felt compelled to pretend they were doing the people’s will. That is the legacy of the French Revolution.

The dilemma facing Spain

Spain’s Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis has said that Catalan nationalists are behaving like “Nazis”, declaring “referendums are a weapon of choice of dictators”. He is right, of course, but referendums are also a common feature of democratic government. That is the dilemma facing Spain at the moment.

The Spanish constitution says that the Spanish State is inviolable, and that no region of the country has the right to secede. Catalan nationalists, on the other hand, argue that a democratic mandate from the Catalonian people trumps any legal mechanism Spain might use to prevent their independence.

What is interesting to note in media coverage on the topic is that, as with the Scottish independence referendum, the nationalists are all assumed to be on one side of the debate. There are lots of political and economic reasons for why Spain would want to hold on to Catalonia, but the overriding one is the belief that Spain must be preserved as it is because that is Spain’s “natural” territory. In brief, the desire of Spain to keep Catalonia is no less nationalistic than the longing of Catalonian nationalists to separate from it.

Are some nations more “authentic”?

But many of us are blind to the nationalism of established nation-states. We consider these to be normal, rational entities, but view anything that challenges them as a form of irrational madness. This thinking leads people to believe that some nations are more “authentic” than others. For example, journalist Melanie Phillips claimed earlier this year that Scotland and Ireland did not have a “real” claim to nationhood, in the way that Britain did.

Along similar lines, the claim that Catalonian nationalists are wrong to hold a referendum because such a move is illegal misses the point entirely. The Spanish government has explicitly said there can never be a referendum. If you believe that Catalonia should be independent, but Madrid will never create a legal pathway to facilitate this, what option is there? In this context, the notion of “illegality” is a semantic trap to maintain the status quo.

It should be remembered that our own independent government came into being as a result of a similar “illegal” action. In the 1918 general election, Sinn Féin campaigned on a promise to keep elected MPs in Dublin to form an Irish parliament, rather than sending them to Westminster.

Arthur Griffith’s belief was that if the Irish people accepted this Irish parliament as their government, Britain would have grant Ireland independence. This theory was never fully tested, because events were overtaken by the War of Independence. But most of us today accept that first Dáil as the original, legitimate Irish government, and we are untroubled if Britain or anyone else saw its existence as illegal at the time.

Madrid can’t ignore what happens

It is precisely for this reason that the Spanish government has not only declared the Catalan referendum to be illegal, but has actively tried to ensure that no vote actually takes place. Any kind of a victory for the pro-independence side will give the Catalan cause greater legitimacy, regardless of how legal the vote is. This is why Madrid can’t simply say the referendum has no standing and then ignore what happens in Catalonia on October 1.

The Spanish government is an extraordinarily difficult position over this matter. On the one hand, denying a democratic vote on a question of considerable importance goes against the very values that are supposed to be at the heart of democratic states. Yet holding the vote threatens the very existence of the Spanish State as we know it.

Polls indicate that if the referendum were to go ahead, the majority of voters would opt to keep Catalonia in Spain. But the Spanish government understands that this will not solve the problem, because once the question is asked, it can be asked again in the future. It might prompt other parts of Spain to request a similar referendum as well.

Preventing a vote is also dangerous, however. Over 70% of Catalan voters believe Catalonia has the right to vote on the question of independence. To deny them the right to a referendum will likely only win converts to the cause of independence.

Trapped between democracy and nationalism, Madrid is in a no-win situation.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor, Irish history

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