After a day spent watching events unfold in Catalonia via social media as the paramilitary agents of Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy used jackboot tactics to disrupt a democratic process – the October 1st independence referendum – I went to bed with some crucial words from Catalan President Carles Puigdemont occupying my thoughts.
Puigdemont, speaking on TV, indicated an early declaration of independence based on a 90% ‘Yes’ vote in favour, and concluded by saying that an independent Catalonia would ‘take the form of a republic’. That, to my mind, is a critically important statement of intent. There are a number of reasons for that.
The intent to create a republic represents a clear break with the Spanish constitution which is that of a monarchist state, and a clear rejection of the authority of Spain’s constitutional court which is not independent but is politically appointed by the Madrid government whose authority over Catalonia is also clearly rejected. In a republic the constitution is the primary legal instrument of the people, and is moulded by them. In a republic there can be no monarch since it is the people who are sovereign.
Over 2000 years ago the Roman philosopher Cicero laid out the basis of a republic. Central to that is his statement that “A commonwealth (res publica) is the property of a people. But a people is not any collection of men brought together in any sort of way, but many people united by agreement on justice and a partnership for the common good”. That is the antithesis of a theocracy, or monarchy, or plutocracy, or any other form of government that we can identify in the world today, including the Spanish state.
Cicero’s republican model was further developed during the European Age of Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries and gave birth to the three abiding principles of a modern republic – Freedom, Equality and Solidarity. Each of these words, and the combination of the three, has surface meaning which is easily understood. But beneath that they have a deep structure of meaning to be mined in the creation of a true modern republic. That deep structure of meaning provides the building blocks and the tools for the making of a constitution of a true republic in the 21st century – a republic that is owned by all of the people “united by agreement on justice and a partnership for the common good”.
And so I am envious of the opportunity that is available to the people of Catalonia should they choose to seize it. Even in my own country, Ireland, which has a strong history of a struggle to create an enlightened modern republic, and which has the template laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic in 1916, we are not at that stage of opportunity or resolve.
The people of Catalonia have the knowledge of their history on their side. The battle to protect the Spanish Republic of the 1930s is still vivid. They don’t need lectures from outsiders like me to know the value of a republic. Their ancestors, some still surviving, paid the high price required to defend it. From my observations both from afar and on visits to Catalonia, it seems the younger generations still have the spirit and the yearning for a better and more enlightened way of living together. On my last visit to Girona and Barcelona, one week before the independence referendum, it felt as if the essence of the republic was already in the ether.
Watching the events unfold on ‘independence day’ via social media and on TV, I saw more evidence that the people already act as they would in a republic. The unspoken catch-cry seemed to have been Freedom, Equality, Solidarity. People of all ages, from the youngest to the oldest, the fittest to the most infirm, faced up to the armour-clad forces of reaction and refused to be cowed. They demanded the freedom to vote. They looked after one another as equals. They stood together ‘united by agreement’, faced down Rajoy’s bullies, and refused to take a backward step. ‘We will vote’, they said, and they did, in ‘partnership for the common good’. ‘We will vote’ – and nobody asked if ‘Yes or No?’ before standing in solidarity with that person’s right to vote. They owned the day. They deserve to own the republic, if that is what they want.
Other voices, more knowledgeable than me in the intricacies of Catalan politics, caution against putting too much store in what this or that political group in Catalonia have to say about independence or the republic, or the level of commitment that they bring to the project. Can the Catalan government be trusted? Is the Municipalities Movement fully on-board with the project? Or Podemos? Or this group of unions, but not that? Those concerns (or that alignment of the commentator with her/his preference) are not an issue for me. As a republican, I put my trust in the people. The republic, if it to exist, is owned by them, and it is for them, acting ‘in partnership for the common good’ to assert their collective authority over the various political actors. They, more than any of the political actors, have shown their courage, stoicism, collective care and dignity in the face of tyranny. They led themselves on the streets and at the polling stations. Those massive citizens’ assemblies were their creation. That is the flowering of the republic.
But if it is to be a republic, let it be a true republic, and not a sham republic.
In 1922 in Ireland the suppression of our true republic – the Irish Republic proclaimed on 24th April 1916 as the prelude to our revolution – was implemented by a reactionary counter-revolutionary element which, in either of two guises has ruled, or misruled to be precise, the state ever since. The state remained a member of the British Commonwealth until the same counter-revolutionaries declared the so-called ‘Republic of Ireland’ in April 1949. But it was a sham republic, and it has been ever since, a ‘republic’ in name only. It fails to meet basic requirements of Cicero’s model or the Enlightenment model of a republic in crucial respects. It is owned by a self-perpetuating ‘elite’ of about 15% of the population who routinely thrash those principles of Freedom, Equality, Solidarity. It has denied the most basic rights to the poor, to women, and to children. It has ceded important areas of social policy such as health and education to the Catholic church. It denies full autonomy to women, including their reproductive rights. It has overseen the physical and sexual abuse of children in care, often by clerics of that same Catholic church who have mostly gone unpunished. It has championed the ‘rights’ of wealthy property owners over the most basic right of citizens to adequate housing, health, education and other rights. There is a long list of what reasonable and informed people might see as ‘crimes against the people’ that can be laid at the door of that political class, and it continues to this day.
How does that work? How can a people, the Irish people, believe themselves to live in a republic when it is but a sham? What comparison could I offer to the people of Catalonia to illustrate our circumstance in a way that they could relate to? I compare it to Spain!
In a recent article, and an associated tweet, British journalist Paul Mason described the string-pullers in the Madrid government as unreformed Falangists, Ultra-Catholics, Opus Dei and neoliberals. In other words, a deeply conservative exclusive ‘elite’ with fascistic tendencies (as demonstrated days ago, but in other ways too), wedded to the dominant religion, a hierarchical monarchy, and kleptocracy. With the exception of a formal monarchy, that is Ireland too. Remember that our governing party, Fine Gael, has its roots in overt fascism through its 1930s ‘Blueshirts’ which stood with Franco, while the alternative, Fianna Fáil, flirted with German Nazism. We have never had a left-leaning government in all of 95 years. Our media, both state and private, controlled by the political class, maintains the status quo, and the pretense that we live in a ‘republic’. It does it through the distribution of overt and covert propaganda favouring that corrupt status quo.
Who in their right mind would not want to end that?
That is the opportunity that presents itself to the people of Catalonia – to make the break with tyranny, to challenge that notion of the ‘indivisibility’ of the Spanish state even when that state rules by force and through corrupt judicial processes, to engage fully in imagining the beauty of a true republic that the people can construct and own and mould for the better over time, to offer that model to other regions of Spain and to other parts of the globe, and to inspire us all to shake off our torpor and our fear and to strike out for a more enlightened future for our children – all of our children.
That is a heavy responsibility to place on the people of Catalonia. But they have shown themselves to be people of tremendous character, not just now but in the past. For our part, we salute them and stand with them. Their battle-cries are ours.