What have Catalonia and Northern Ireland in common? – By Ian James Parsley

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In my response to the Haass Talks I suggested that they would get nowhere without firstly agreeing what Northern Ireland is.

I posited that Northern Ireland is a “multinational state”, exemplified by the town centre of Downpatrick, where at one location three streets meet – Irish Street, Scotch Street and English Street. That, right there, is Northern Ireland.

You cannot begin to make any argument around the future constitutional status or broad cultural policy of this place without starting from there. We are the crossroads of three nations (albeit for most purposes “English” and “Scotch” are content to share the designation “British”), and the best we can do is make the intersection between them as freeflowing as possible – allowing expression of Irishness and various forms of Britishness, without doing so in a way which is provocative or simply unreasonable.

This has not been wholly unsuccessful by any means. The parades issue (profoundly one of reasonable expression of identity) has largely been resolved, even if it took the best part of two decades. However, many so-called “debates” didn’t truly get started (as the Haass Talks didn’t) because they do not agree on this fundamental starting point.

I am very frustrated by the way in which people elsewhere in Europe, and most obviously in Scotland and across Ireland, have approached the breakdown in Catalonia merely by foisting their own slants upon it. This is all the more frustrating because the situation – and the assumptions around the situation – are profoundly different there, and elsewhere in Spain. The history, the culture, the role of the security forces, the attitude towards voting are all different – sometimes obviously and sometimes subtly – so as to defy detailed understanding from afar. We of all people should know better than to interfere in others’ affairs without any real sympathy for the complexities.

One thing does strike me as a justifiable parallel, however – Catalonia is also a location where two nations (I accept this is a controversial word there!) share a single region.

The answer in Northern Ireland – and it is the answer whether people care to accept it in full or not – is to allow people to choose either nation, and while accepting sovereignty will be determined by the majority in a referendum also reflecting this dual nationality in the institutions (such as cross-border bodies, etc). Absolutism one way or the other – demanding everyone be of just one nation and utterly ignoring the other – did not and cannot work.

That, inevitably, will also be the answer in Catalonia. You cannot “stand with the Catalans” without reflecting that, by nationality, some are Catalan but not Spanish, some are Spanish but not Catalan, and some are both. “Freedom” solely for one inevitably means oppression of the other. Any constitutional outcome, therefore, cannot consist of absolutism – but rather will have to reflect the dual Catalan-Spanish national identity of the region. The truth in the end is that the Statute of Autonomy, similar to Northern Ireland’s “Good Friday Agreement”, is the answer – or, at least, a good deal closer to it than either Direct Rule from Madrid or outright independence outside the EU.

The other current parallel is that in both cases there are two Leaders insisting on their own absolutism with no real sense of give and take. However in Northern Ireland, exceedingly frustrating though it is, at least they are talking to each other and perhaps even seeking to mend relationships. As we look to Catalonia we may usefully reflect that we are, in fact, the lucky ones.

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  1. Ian falls on question of sovereignty. Its the crux of our problem because an artificial majority was carved out to preserve a victory for English/Scots Street. Irish Street was prevented from touching the ball never mind kicking it at goal. The rest of his piece becomes irrelevant because he could not grasp the obvious nettle!

    • I don’t believe the crux of our problem is that an artificial majority was carved out , the problem was, for a variety reasons that have been widely discussed that a very significant number of people at the time of home rule/independence did not want to leave the UK for all sorts of reasons. Some people clearly believe they should have been forced into a single Irish independent state but for good or bad they were not. It comes across as not entirely dissimilair to Bexit? Certainly at the time of partition many in the north belived it in their economic interest to remain in the UK economic and political union.
      Regard;ess of the rights and wrongs of the past Northern Ireland I beliecve has developed a distinct regional identity. Are we the island of Irelands equivalent to Catalonia?

  2. I agree with much that you say, Ian. The problem is that there was an agreed position, accepted by referendum and by the overwhelming majority of Catalans and put in place. It was then disrupted by the courts in Madrid. Think of what would have happened if the House of Lords (the Supreme Court in London until 2005) had overturned the 1998 Belfast Agreement, and the UK Government had then insisted on implementing the revocation and refusing talks on the question with the representatives in Northern Ireland. Would there have been trouble? The question for those of us outsiders is not whether we support one side or the other (as you rightly say) but whether this is a problem that can be resolved by insisting on the current law or needs political agreement.

  3. Its a thought provoking peace and a comparison is a worthwhile exercise. However one part of the comparison that falls down is the perceived wish for sovereignty by Catalonians simply for the economic benefits it may bring. At least Irish nationalists, and there were many bad ones, were prepared to die for their nationhood. The Catalonian leader seems to prefer hiding out in Belgium. That fact alone will lose them sympathy in droves. Many in Northern Ireland will be surprised to learn, that many in the South, don’t spend much time thinking of a United Ireland. It would no doubt bring many economic benefits to the island, from simple currency and tariffs benefits to increased tourism and hopefully a post catholic church and northern extremists secular island. A federal governmental system might do something to appease tribalism both here and in Spain. I am referring of course to Cork tribalism in an Irish context, as we have no problem with Belfast governing an expanded 9 county Ulster region.

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