Whatever its flaws, the British way of doing things has lessons for Spain

In an article in the Guardian prescribing on the Catalonian crisis, Gerry Adams strives to put himself on the right side of history and apply lessons from our own peace process.

Thus far, the Spanish government is refusing to open a dialogue without the Catalans acquiescing to preconditions, including an acceptance that any talk of independence is illegal under Spanish law. In a conversation I had on Thursday evening with the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, he assured me that the Catalan government stands ready to talk. I urge the Spanish government to agree to talks and to international mediation. I also call on everyone, but especially the Spanish state, to not use violence in this dispute. The imperative must be to apply peaceful methods to find an agreement….

The role of the international community is vital, because international experience shows that the participation and encouragement of international actors in any process of negotiation and mediation can be the difference between success and failure.

Indeed, we might all agree that sending in baton- waving national   police to attack voters and polling stations is a sure-fire way to provoke a crisis. The Spanish government seems to believe that absolute compliance with their quite recent constitution of 1975 is the end of argument rather than a beginning. But as has been observed, laws are made for people, not people for law.  We know only too well that police action of the type we witnessed last week can create an entirely different agenda  which  leads to a loss of control by all constitutional authorities, including the central government.  The Spanish people should  surely need no lessons here.

And yet Madrid must surely have anticipated all the obvious criticisms. Their actions seem to have been intended to bring a rumbling crisis to a head. While this is a terrific gamble it may have chalked up at least the temporary successes of bringing out the so-called silent majority against independence and causing the Catalan president to draw back for the moment at least.  Perhaps now real talking can begin.

The Spanish constitution was devised after centuries of stagnation followed by civil war and fascism in which up to a million died. It differs radically  from the British experience since the 1970s. The absence of a codified UK constitution to uphold may have been be a positive  advantage. Devolution has developed untidily but the right of self determination for Scotland and Wales was never seriously challenged.

Admittedly it was envisaged that devolution would put a brake rather than an accelerator on Scottish demands for independence. Even so, Indyref 1 was conducted by agreement between the two parliaments and according to British law. Indyref2 if it happens will not proceed differently. The Remain verdicts  of the Brexit referendum have increased tensions but they fall well short of  Scotland threatening to go it alone.

The Irish experience of virtual UDI  in 1919 by setting up the Dail unilaterally accompanied by rising violence, provides an obvious cautionary tale for both sides in Spain.  Even more appropriate perhaps is the growing realisation that a referendum on constitutional  change  should come  towards  the end of a political process, not the beginning, This is one of the lessons for the separatist government in particular as they contemplate a highly divisive and unsatisfactory UDI which noone really believes will produce the desired result. The pressure of capital flight from Barcelona, echoing what happened to Montreal to help deter Quebec independence by a whisker, is also powerfully in play.

If Madrid and Barcelona  draw back from mutual games of brinkmanship, they should not need Mr Adams’s detailed prescriptions  which come at the end of 30 years of violence in which he himself was such an eager participant.

It used to be said that EU subsidiarity – the transfer of power to the lowest possible level – would inevitably weaken the power of the nation states.  So far this has not extended to support for independence movements in Catalonia and Scotland. As we can see this week in Glasgow, this has had a chastening effect on the onward march of the SNP.

In fact, the EU trend is to oppose secession. The nation states are in a bond of mutual support,  in particular the inner core who are trying to move towards greater harmonisation – a very different result from  the fragmentation of states.

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