Catalonia Crisis must be Resolved through Dialogue- Dáil speech by Brendan Howlin

24 October 2017


Catalonia Crisis must be Resolved through Dialogue

Dáil Éireann, Statements on Catalonia

Tuesday 24th October 2017

I want to start by quoting a statement from the Catalonian President with which I profoundly agree.  Carles Puigdemont told his parliament on the 10th October that:-

 “The current moment is serious enough for everyone to assume their corresponding responsibility, and for the necessity to de-escalate tension and not to contribute to it, neither through word nor gesture … [T]he way forward can be none other than through democracy and peace. That means respecting those who think differently, and finding a way to make possible collective aspirations, with the realisation that that requires a large dose of dialogue and empathy.”

There was little enough dialogue or empathy shown by the Madrid authorities 10 days previously, when they resorted to unacceptable, police state, tactics in their efforts to prevent the independence referendum.

To those of us who live by the principles and practices of electoral politics, to see uniformed men smashing their way into polling stations and carrying away ballot boxes and polling papers is to see a form of secular sacrilege.

Madrid’s tactics have made Madrid’s police force the natural enemy of many in Catalonia. This was avoidable. It was, at best, heavy-handed and ham-fisted.

I said at the time, and I repeat, that any violence against voters and polling station officials is unacceptable and unjustifiable.

And the subsequent escalation, which involved the use of plastic bullets and physical intimidation by the Spanish police, must also be condemned.

The Madrid authorities seem to be going out of their way to do the pro-independence parties’ work for them. They are creating support for independence, at home and abroad. If they stick to this heavy-handed approach, then the police and the Spanish Government will only further inflame this dispute and strengthen the independence movement.

It is not good enough for the European Commission, looking only to the constitutional issue, to describe the crisis as an “internal matter” for the Spanish. We all of us have an interest and a duty to see Member States of the Union observe democratic principles in their dealings with their own citizens.

All that said, I would also disagree with those in this House and elsewhere who have called for us unthinkingly and unstintingly to support the Catalonian declaration of independence.

Life is more complicated than that. Touting simple solutions to complex issues can do very real harm, to real people.

Apart from anything else, should a Catalonian unilateral declaration of independence include the administrative entity of Aran? This small valley is in Catalonia but it is home to a separate Aranese population with their own history, their own capital and autonomous government, their own language and even – because it is north of the Pyrenees, their own micro-climate.

So, should the Aranese, all 10,000 of them, be allowed on that account to secede from both Catalonia and from Spain and set up their own state?

Or should it further sub-divide? Should the 4,000 or so people in Aran who speak Spanish as their native language split from the 3,500 who speak Aranese? As well as from the 2,000 of them who speak Catalan?

This debate has a particular resonance for us in this House. We are coming up to the centenary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann, when our forebears addressed their message to the free nations of the world.

We wanted our case on the agenda at the Versailles treaty talks. We insisted that –

“Nationally, the race, the language the customs and traditions of Ireland are radically distinct from the English, Ireland is one of the most ancient nations in Europe, and she has preserved her national integrity, vigorous and intact, through seven centuries of foreign oppression: she has never relinquished her national rights, and throughout the long era of English usurpation she has in every generation defiantly proclaimed her inalienable right of nationhood down to her last glorious resort to arms in 1916.”

The Catalonian separatists could repeat this language, almost word for word, though citing I think fewer examples of resort to arms.

In the 1916 proclamation, the existence of a significant unionist population on this island, with its own culture, tradition and religion, was only fleetingly and grudgingly referenced. It was described as “differences carefully fostered by an alien Government”, which had divided a minority from the majority in the past, and to which we the majority should be ‘oblivious’.

Well, we were indeed oblivious to those differences. And the result was bloodshed and mayhem.

As Senator Michael McDowell commented at the weekend, no one was more strongly opposed to the unionists’ claim of entitlement to opt out of an independent Ireland than those Irish nationalists who proclaimed the right to opt out of the United Kingdom.

Self-determination as a principle is unwieldy and can produce wildly unexpected results. When, for example, the European Union hastily cobbled together principles for the international recognition as states of the various component parts of the collapsing Yugoslavia, they might have thought they were doing a good days work.

But the very same principles were later applied by Russia and the Crimea to assert Crimea’s right to opt out of the Ukraine and return to Russia.

To be clear about this, there was a referendum to determine the future status of Crimea in March 2014. It was organised by the legislature of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and by the local government of Sevastopol, which were both subdivisions of Ukraine.

The referendum requested local populations whether they wanted to join Russia as a federal subject. It was declared unlawful by the Ukraine government.

The official result was a more than 95% vote for integration of the region into the Russian Federation, with an 80% turnout.

This is not the sort of precedent the Catalonians would want to follow. To this day, only Russia and 10 other states recognise Crimea as part of the Russian Federation. Ukraine continues to claim Crimea as an integral part of its territory and is supported by most of the rest of the world and by UN General Assembly Resolution 68/262.

Before the Berlin Wall fell and when the Cold war was still being waged, the Helsinki Final Act, signed by the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975, was a major step towards normal and peaceful relations.

Some 35 states, including the USA, the USSR and most of Europe, signed the declaration in an attempt to improve relations between the Communist bloc and the West.

The “Declaration on Principles Guiding Relations between Participating States” enumerated 10 fundamental principles, including –

  • Sovereign equality,
  • Refraining from the threat or use of force
  • Inviolability of frontiers
  • Territorial integrity of States, and
  • Peaceful settlement of disputes.

All the principles are important, notwithstanding that some of them may well in practice be in conflict. For example, the states of Europe are committed to non-intervention in each other’s internal affairs, as well as respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the equal rights and self-determination of peoples.

Ireland signed the Helsinki Final Act even though at that time we had our own issues about recognising the inviolability of national frontiers. The Helsinki Accords significantly reduced Cold War tensions by recognising that frontiers in Europe should be stable but could change by peaceful internal means.

I know that for many alive today, more so among the young, Spain in general is a holiday destination and Barcelona is a party town. The idea that they could not resolve their difficulties peacefully, that they might resort to violence, seem unthinkable.

Maybe the many Spanish visitors to Ireland think much the same about us.

Spain had its Civil War later than ours and was, in the lifetime of many of us, an oppressive dictatorship. We had our Civil War and we later surprised the civilised world by the brutality and longevity of the Northern Ireland troubles.

No doubt the civilised people of Sarajevo were also surprised by how swiftly and brutally their city descended into chaos.

A commitment to self-determination, pure and simple, seems so right. But, to quote from Orwell in his Homage to Catalonia: “Hitherto, the rights and wrongs had seemed so beautifully simple.” Real life is not so pure, never so simple.

If this House and this county has anything to teach the rest of Europe about all this, it is that there is nothing inevitable about peace, that there is nothing more important than dialogue and empathy, nothing so life-saving as negotiation and compromise.

We should not be taking sides in this dispute – but not because it is a purely internal, Spanish matter.

Rather we should not be taking sides because we have a far greater interest in seeing this dispute peacefully resolved than in seeing either side of it victorious.

So, it is not international law that will settle this matter, although that is important. The legal rules about self-determination and the recognition of new states are still uncertain. Practice changed in 1991 and, as I have said, the change in practice produced at least one result that surprised those responsible.

Peaceful settlement is the only principle that matters. All other principles are subordinate to that.

What is needed now is a commitment by both sides to mediation, dialogue and negotiation.

In the words of Kofi Annan, chair of The Elders, which includes our own Mary Robinson, the progress that Spain has made since its democratic transition in 1975 should not be put at risk. The potential political, economic and social repercussions of a protracted crisis should not be underestimated. Both sides must refrain from any more divisive and inflammatory language and actions. This constitutional crisis calls for consultation and not confrontation.

I would join with him and I hope all members here in urging the Spanish government and the regional government of Catalonia to renew their commitment to a resolution through dialogue and to finding a peaceful path out of this crisis.

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