Great white tide to halt blood­shed

Spain braces for ex­plo­sive week as thou­sands join . . .

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - COMMENT - From IAN BIRRELL IN BARCELONA

THEY came in their thou­sands wear­ing white, re­leas­ing bal­loons and beg­ging their lead­ers to start peace talks to pre­vent Spain’s cri­sis over Cat­alo­nia’s push for in­de­pen­dence spi­ralling out of con­trol.

Demon­stra­tions in 50 Span­ish cities high­lighted the se­ri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion con­fronting one of Europe’s most im­por­tant na­tions.

In Barcelona 5,500 pro­test­ers chanted, ‘Let’s talk’ in Cata­lan.

‘We’re afraid be­cause there could be chaos,’ said Ma­ri­eta Luma, 51, an en­gi­neer wear­ing a heart pinned to her white T-shirt. ‘If politi­cians do not ar­rive at agree­ment, there may be dis­as­ter.’

At a pro-unity demon­stra­tion in Madrid thou­sands chanted Viva Es­paña be­neath the mas­sive Span­ish flag that stands per­ma­nently in Colon Plaza. One lead­ing Cata­lan politi­cian called for a ‘cease­fire’ with Spain to lower ten­sions. ‘We have to give it one more chance, maybe the last chance,’ said Santi Vila, the busi­ness min­is­ter.

The events were or­gan­ised by a new group formed af­ter Cat­alo­nia’s con­tro­ver­sial ref­er­en­dum last week­end, a vote which backed se­ces­sion de­spite bru­tal po­lice at­tempts to pre­vent polling in a bal­lot de­clared il­le­gal. Po­lice wield­ing ba­tons tried to seize bal­lot boxes in scenes more redo­lent of a bru­tal dic­ta­tor­ship than a mod­ern Euro­pean democ­racy.

Many fear it may be a fore­taste of what is to come as pop­ulist politi­cians in Cat­alo­nia push for sep­a­ra­tion from Spain while a weak Madrid gov­ern­ment and a cack­handed king worsen the sit­u­a­tion. On Fri­day, the Cata­lan gov­ern­ment re­vealed fi­nal re­sults of the banned ref­er­en­dum. There was a huge ma­jor­ity to se­cede, although fewer than half the el­i­gi­ble 5.3 mil­lion vot­ers cast bal­lots.

Car­les Puigde­mont, the Cata­lan leader, has said the re­sult is bind­ing. Now Europe waits anx­iously to see if he will make a uni­lat­eral in­de­pen­dence procla­ma­tion this week, spark­ing fears of spi­ralling con­fronta­tion – with the dark­est his­tor­i­cal echoes.

The scale of the cri­sis, Spain’s most se­ri­ous since a failed coup in 1981, has been brought home by banks and other firms start­ing to move le­gal bases from Barcelona to en­sure they re­main in the EU. The stakes are high since Spain is the fourth-big­gest econ­omy in the eu­ro­zone and Cat­alo­nia is a sub­stan­tial source of the coun­try’s tax rev­enues.

More pro-unity ral­lies are sched­uled in sev­eral cities to­day, with fears that far-right groups may flock to one in Barcelona.

Madrid has char­tered three fer­ries, with ca­pac­ity for 6,600 pas­sen­gers, to ac­com­mo­date po­lice sent to Barcelona and Tar­rag­ona, another sea­side city. There are un­con­firmed ru­mours of spe­cial forces sent to se­cure sites such as air­ports in case the cri­sis es­ca­lates this week.

Some of the worst vi­o­lence last week­end was seen in his­toric Girona, north of Barcelona, at the pri­mary school at­tended by Puigde­mont’s chil­dren, where riot po­lice were de­ter­mined to stop peo­ple reach­ing the bal­lot boxes. Old and young linked hands to defy them in de­fence of their democ­racy. But af­ter fir­ing warn­ing shots close to their heads, the black­clad para­mil­i­tary forces charged at the vot­ers, lash­ing out with their ba­tons.

One man was coshed 12 times in the melee, oth­ers kicked as they lay blood­ied on the ground. ‘I was scared,’ said re­tired banker Jaume, 58, who went to vote. ‘I was in the third row of the crowd so when they started to beat the first row, I knew they were go­ing to soon beat me. I put my hands up but I was hit on the head. Then as I tried to leave and cross the road, with blood pour­ing from my head wound, another po­lice­man hit me on the leg.

‘The po­lice looked sav­age. You could see from their faces they wanted to dam­age peo­ple.’

Puigde­mont is due to make an of­fi­cial state­ment on Tues­day even­ing. Span­ish courts have al­ready sus­pended a Cata­lan par­lia­men­tary ses­sion amid threats of sedi­tion charges and im­po­si­tion of di­rect rule from Madrid.

Carme For­cadell, speaker of Cata­lan’s par­lia­ment, said: ‘We are liv­ing in an emer­gency sit­u­a­tion in which the con­sti­tu­tional court, act­ing on or­ders of the Span­ish gov­ern­ment, is seek­ing to tell a demo­cratic par­lia­ment what it can and can­not talk about. We will not let that hap­pen. Dec­la­ra­tions of in­de­pen­dence made demo­crat­i­cally and peace­fully in na­tions freely ex­er­cis­ing their right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion are valid.’

The vi­o­lent po­lice re­sponse, fol­lowed by King Felipe’s con­dem­na­tion of at­tempts to break ‘the unity of Spain’ in which he ig­nored their ac­tions, has only in­flamed the long-run­ning sore of Cat­alo­nian na­tion­al­ism.

Sur­veys show sup­port for in­de­pen­dence dou­bled af­ter the fi­nan­cial cri­sis in 2008 that struck Spain hard, but there was never a ma­jor­ity in favour.

Cat­alo­nia pays bil­lions more to Madrid than it gets back, pro­vok­ing na­tion­al­ist claims of ‘rob­bery.’ Although one of the rich­est re­gions, with lower un­em­ploy­ment than most of Spain and thriv­ing tourism, it still has more than one-third of young peo­ple with­out jobs. Many Cata­lans be­lieve they are be­ing re­strained by a back­ward na­tion.

It is im­pos­si­ble to ig­nore ghosts from the past in a re­gion that was the home of the de­feated rev­o­lu­tion­ary forces in the 1930s civil war that led to a fas­cist dic­ta­tor­ship un­der Gen­eral Franco, which only ended on his death in 1975.

Sev­eral peo­ple on the streets quoted an in­fa­mous re­frain by a 19th-cen­tury Span­ish gen­eral – ‘You have to bomb Barcelona at least once ev­ery 50 years’ – while a pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion com­edy show made jokes about a sleep­ing Franco re­turn­ing to the fray.

Ra­mon Tre­mosa, an econ­o­mist and Cata­lan MEP, joked drily that ‘at least they are only beat­ing us, not shoot­ing us.’

If Puigde­mont presses ahead with his procla­ma­tion, that quip may yet take a darker turn.

‘We’re afraid… there could be dis­as­ter’ ‘They joke about re­turn of a sleep­ing Franco’

TAK­ING TO THE STREETS: Marchers in Barcelona yes­ter­day and, in­set,a woman with white hands makes her feel­ings clear

‘SAV­AGE’: Riot po­lice con­front a woman near a polling sta­tion last week

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