A debate on the above theme was organised in Trinity College for the 29th January and advertised at less than a week’s notice, which however gave rise to such interest that the venue had to be changed from the 160-seat Robert Emmett Theatre to the Edmund Burke and people were turned away after the 406 seats had been filled.
Trinity College is a prestige university in Dublin and in the world generally, though its history in Dublin was for centuries of a religious sectarian and colonialist nature, founded as it was by Elizabeth I to ensure the education of the male children of English colonists in what she considered the ‘true faith’ of Anglicanism (which was and is still the State religion of England and of which the English monarch is Head). Its location too is very central to the city, being just across the Liffey on the south side and in 1916 served as a Headquarters for the British suppression of the Rising.
Puigdemont had been invited to take part in a debate on Independence, Nationalism and Democracy by TRISS, the Trinity Research in Social Sciences department, whose MC for the evening was clearly taken aback by the numbers who had pre-booked tickets and most of whom queued for half an hour outside the lecture theatre – and some for even longer waiting to get in.
Members and supporters of the campaign group With Catalonia/ Leis an Chatalóin, Comite de Defensa de la República and the cultural organisation Casal Catalá de Irlanda were there of course but so were a great many others; mostly Catalans with some Irish and people from other countries sprinkled among them and including some from elsewhere in the Spanish state. The overall feeling was clear when, as soon as Puigdemont was spotted entering the auditorium from a side entrance, along with other participants, he was applauded in what turned out to be a mostly standing ovation.
The MC or chairperson, Gail McElroy, Professor in Political Science and Head of the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy, made a special plea for good behaviour from the audience and also revealed that she had experienced some trepidation in preparation for the event. These expressions led to speculation among sections of the audience that the organisers of the debate had been subjected to a bombardment of hostile electronic communication. People in the Spanish state and sometimes abroad are familiar with this behaviour from right-wing Spanish nationalists, including outright fascists and even state-orchestrated trolls but for someone encountering it for the first time, no doubt it can be intimidating.
PUIGDEMONT: IT IS NOT ACCEPTABLE IN EUROPE
Puigdemont began by saying that some of those present might want to know why Catalans do not want to be part of Spain. He could answer that question by recalling the history of Catalonia as a nation, its struggles, its language and its culture. That would be the discourse of 19th-20th Century nationalism, he said. However he preferred to outline it as modern process in the 21st Century, rooted in Europe and in democracy.
The President-in-exile surprised some of his listeners, no doubt, by pointing out that as recently as four years ago, the majority of the Catalan independentist parties had been asking only for greater autonomy from the Spanish State. The history of recent growth towards a majority demand for independence has been as a result of the refusal of the Spanish State to concede any greater autonomy and of the Spanish Court revoking laws passed by the Catalan Government.
“But the Spanish response to Catalan demands has always been “no”, to everything”, said Puigdemont. “No” to dialogue. “No” to negotiation. “No” to reaching a democratic solution. Given the refusal, and obeying the mandate given to us by the majority of Catalan citizens, the Government of Catalonia, which it was my honour to preside, called a referendum on self–determination on 1 October 2017, with the legal backing of the Parliament of Catalonia. We did so while observing the basic principles of universal rights.”
And the world had seen the violence of the Spanish police inflicted upon people wishing peacefully to vote.
“The aim was not just to confiscate ballot boxes and ballot slips”, Puigdemont maintained but instead “to make people give up their right to vote. But this ignominious act backfired on the politicians responsible for it. Over 2.4 million citizens overcame their fear and went out to vote. We do not know how many tried to do so unsuccessfully, but we do know the polling stations that were violently closed represented a further 770,000 voters.”
Puigdemont continued: “Today, democracy in Spain is at risk because basic rights have been “de facto” suspended, and this represents a major threat to all Catalan and Spanish citizens, as well as to the European Union. Today, an EU member state cannot guarantee the judicial rights of its citizens, given that in recent months Spain has contravened international treaties ratified by the Spanish state itself, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”
Referring to the Spanish State taking direct control of the Catalan government administration and preparing criminal charges against grass-roots organisation leaders and elected representatives, taking some as prisoners while others went into exile, Puigdemont said that this was not an internal Spanish problem but instead a Europan one. Seven hundred others, mostly town mayors, are under investigation too. Those independence activists, who have done nothing wrong and even according to Spanish law are innocent until proven guilty, have been kept in prison for over a year.
Concluding, Puigdemont said: “We will not falter. I have often said that what threatens democracy is not disagreement; indeed, democracy needs disagreements. What really threatens it is a lack of tools to solve disagreements democratically. We Catalans hope and trust that the political conflict over our self–determination can be resolved peacefully, without war, without violence, without winners and losers, without victims and thugs. We reject all the violence used in the last century in any part of the planet to resolve political conflict.
“As Pau Casals, a well-known Catalan, reminded us in a memorable speech to the United Nations Assembly in 1971, Catalans in the eleventh century met ‘to talk about peace, because at that time, the Catalans were already against war’. Ten centuries later, we maintain these same values of peace and harmony.”
THE OTHER SPEAKERS IN THE DEBATE
Located as the debate was in the capital city of Ireland and in the centenary of the founding of the first democratically-elected Irish Parliament, an Chéad Dáil, it was most noticeable that neither Puigdemont nor the other speakers referred to the experience of Ireland’s struggle for independence.
Dr Marvin Suesse – Assistant Professor in Economics, Trinity College Dublin spoke on “The Economic Costs of Sovereignty”, from his research on the political economy of separatism and nationalism. He said that while the benefits of independence in terms of feelings of pride, promotion of culture etc. were difficult to measure, the economic benefits were not. Suesse went on to give examples which indicated that the costs of independence were greater than the benefits.
Dr Michelle D’Arcy – Assistant Professor in Political Science, Trinity College Dublin. spoke on “Secession and the Fiscal Contract: Reflections from the Post-Colonial World.”
D’Arcy teaches African politics and the political economy of development to undergraduate and postgraduate students and her research broadly focuses on understanding how politics and institutions enable and constrain human development and more specifically on democratization in Africa and state-building in Europe historically. Though she made some interesting points and believes that independence movements engage in a “fiscal contract”, it was difficult to see where she stood on the question under discussion.
Dr Emanuel Coman – Assistant Professor in Political Science, Trinity College Dublin spoke on “When does the Right to Self-Determination Actually Apply?”
Emanuel Coman is Assistant Professor in Political Science at Trinity College Dublin, teaching courses in comparative institutions and American Politics. His research is primarily in the fields of party politics and elections, with empirics driven primarily from Eastern Europe.
Coman, from Rumania as he told his audience, analysed the European nations that were successful in gaining independence after WWI. Most had been under the rule of the defeated belligerents. His thesis seemed to be that a nation’s bid for independence required the support of the big powers exerting influence in the area.
“ONE MUST ALSO WEIGH THE COST OF NOT DECLARING INDEPENDENCE!”
Commenting on the presentations of the other speakers and responding to questions after his presentation, Puigdemont was more lively than when reading his speech and at times showed some fire, particularly when he responded that as well as weighing the costs of independence, one must consider the costs of not becoming independent, which brought some applause from sections of the audience. Aside from anything else, he said, it is a question of dignity: the Catalans had the right to make their own decisions, whether they be correct ones or mistaken.
A much greater applause and cheers broke out when Puigdemont denied that the Spanish State could be described as “a democracy” and stated that this was not opinion but fact, given that the Monarch and Head of State (father of the current monarch) had been personally appointed as his successor by the fascist coupist General Franco, whose mausoleum is a national monument of the State.
Responding to a suggestion that the Catalan pro-independence movement might benefit from employing the tactics of the “Yellow Vests” of Paris, Puigdemont was most emphatic that his movement was peaceful and would never under any circumstances resort to violence.
One member of the audience criticised the panel (other than Puigdemont) for not addressing the actual issues in Catalan independence and the Spanish State’s opposition.
Asked by a member of the audience to describe his feelings of exile, Puigdemont replied that he could not indulge those feelings since he would be unable to continue the struggle if he did so. He revealed that his own grandfather, in a concentration camp in France after the fall of Barcelona to Franco’s military-fascist forces, had written to his family so that they were aware of the feelings of exile even though they never saw him again. His voice seemed to gain a heightened emotion when he remarked that when he compared his situation to that of refugees, like those from Syria, launching themselves on the hazardous journey to European shores, survivors arriving often to be badly treated, he felt he had little of which to complain.
The audience gave Puigdemont and, one supposes, the other speakers and TRISS for having organised the debate, sustained applause and cheers, during which one could hear some pro-independence slogans in Catalan. Afterwards, many remained in the auditorium to speak to Puigdemont or to chat amongst themselves in a general buzz of excitement.
Views expressed by a number of listeners afterwards on the content of the debate were in general positive though these varied through a continuum from “excellent” to “all right but somewhat disappointing”. All feedback received agreed that on two points Puigdemont had been excellent: on the question of calculating the cost of NOT seceding from the Spanish state and also on the characterisation of the Spanish State as not being a democracy, as one that had failed to break properly with its Franco-fascist past. Few gave positive feedback on the other debaters.
Crowds delayed leaving for around half an hour, gathering talking among themselves or queuing up to shake Puigdemont’s hand, talk to him etc. and Casals Catala presented him with some books on Irish history.
Puigdemont comes across as quite genuine in his convictions and as an able debater, even in a language which cannot be his first or second. His vision of Europe does not perhaps coincide with the views of some others and one may doubt the practicality of his commitment to non-violence. One may also question whether anyone has the right to commit the movement to peaceful resistance alone, even if it were to be attacked violently.
I did not hear him speak any words in Irish but the written text of Puigdemont’s speech did contain some. Although it was good to see some Irish there, for the few words he was going to speak in the language, Puigdemont (or his advisors) might have taken the trouble to formulate them correctly. Addressing “mná agus uasal” although addressing women first, suggests that the audience was an almost all-female one and who were not “uasal” (noble, important), but was surely unintended. And “dea-trathnóna leat (‘to you’, singular) go léir” (to all of you) is a conflation of singular and plural in the same address; likewise with the “go raibh maith agat” which thanks one person rather than the audience which was the intention and “go mór” which if not incorrect is clumsy and straight from Google Translate for “thanks a lot”.
Standing outside the auditorium with a placard announcing the Catalan solidarity demonstration on Saturday 9th April, at one point I noticed Puigdemont standing some metres away with some others. As he caught my eye, he stepped towards me, hand outstretched.
I gripped his hand and smiling, said: “Fáilte go Baile Átha Cliath!”
“Thank you,” he replied, smiling also and stepped back.
Whatever else he may be, I suspect he is what we in Dublin would call (with a meaning remote from any kind of subservience) “A gentleman.”
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES ON PUIGDEMONT:
Born in Amer, a village in the province of Girona and fifty-seven years of age last December, Carles Puigedemont is a journalist by trade and ex-Mayor of Girona, a major Catalonian city of over 100,000, just under 100 kilometres (62 miles) north-east of Barcelona. In 2006, after a track record of activism in Catalan culture and nationalist activism, he was adopted as a political candidate by the CIU (Convergence and Union) political party and later to represent the reformation of that party in the Junts per Si (Together for Yes) coalition, composed of mostly nationalist capitalist elements. He has been successful in every election and currently heads the uneasy Junts per Cat (Together for Catalonia) coalition. The current Govern is made up of a coalition between JuntsXCat and ERC (Republican Left of Catalonia), with the other pro-independence party, CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy) in opposition, though not voting with the Spanish-unionist opposition.
In what seems an action contradictory to his political position, in January 2019 Puigdemont filed a constitutional application for amparo (remedy, to put right) directed against the President of the Catalan Parliament, Roger Torrent and the Board of the Chamber, to the Spanish Constitutional Court. The application argues Puigdemont had been denied the use of his political rights as Torrent did not allow him to delegate his vote from Belgium after Puigdemont’s criminal indictment and suspension of his parliamentary position by Supreme Court judge Pablo Llarena.
Despite constant Spanish-unionist claims from both Right and Left, the Catalan pro-independence movement has shown itself more tolerant of migrants and diversity than can be said in general of much of the rest of the Spanish State; one of the laws of the Govern sought to give migrants equal access to Catalan national health care but was twice squashed by the Spanish Supreme Court. Puigdemont is himself married to Romanian journalist (Marcela Topor in 2000) and they have two daughters, Magali and Maria, the family home in Girona. His children are multi-lingual and Puigdemont himself speaks Catalan and Castillian (Spanish), as do most Catalans but also English, French and Romanian.
LINKS AND FURTHER INFORMATION
Text of Puigdemont’s address in the debate in full attached at the end of the brief report in El Nacional: https://www.elnacional.cat/en/news/puigdemont-dublin-bertie-ahern-trinity-college-ireland_349173_102.html
Pre-event publicity from Trinity College: https://www.tcd.ie/ssp/events/lectures/2019-01-independence/
With Catalonia/ Leis an Chatalóin: https://www.facebook.com/WithCataloniaIreland/
CDR Dublin: https://www.facebook.com/CDRDublin/
Casal Catalá de Irlanda: https://www.facebook.com/casalcatalairlanda/