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Update from Barcelona on The Catalan Referendum

October 12, 2017 Lucy Ryan 2 Comments

Lucy Ryan is an ACIS Tour Manager who lives in Barcelona.

The Catalans often speak of their ‘fet diferencial’, their differentiating fact, meaning what distinguishes them from their fellow Spaniards. Being late, however, is something universal to the whole of Spain, even the Catalans, and so it was that the long-awaited announcement on independence was finally delivered at 7pm rather than the scheduled time of 6pm. Standing in the crowd of pro-independence Catalans, waving their ‘Senyera’ and ‘Estelada’ flags by the ‘Arc de Triomf’ in Barcelona, people seemed excited, but also apprehensive.

And Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan President, played the crowd like a pro. He spoke at length about the need to respect the outcome of the referendum, the need to respect the will of the people, but also the need for dialogue with Spain and finally, he declared that he was forging ahead with the declaration of independence. The crowd watching him address the Catalan parliament on the big screen, roared its approval.

However, he was not done. In what can only be described as a Machiavellian maneuver, he continued that whilst asking for a mandate to make Catalonia an independent republic, he also wanted to suspend the declaration of independence for a few weeks in order to open a period of dialogue with the Spanish government. It was as if the crowd universally shook their head. And then almost immediately everyone began to disperse. No anger, merely resignation, sadness, exhaustion and for some, relief.

Catalan Independence Rally

There were many here who didn’t feel it was the right time to declare independence. Aside from the impracticality of how it could possibly be implemented overnight, there is also the consideration that the vote only represented 43% of the electorate and as such can hardly be said to be reflective of the whole of Catalonia. One friend, a fervent pro-separatist, said she felt sick when she heard Puigdemont say he was signing a mandate for independence. Whilst the red and yellow Catalan flags dominate the media coverage, in reality, Catalan sentiment is reflected in myriad colours. Within each camp, there are factions and splinter groups, each with their own agendas.

Often when I see media reports of what is going on in a city, it’s almost as if it’s happening in a parallel world. There is of course, the temptation to sensationalise. We all do it. We re-tell a story adding a few details to entertain our audience. This is much how I feel about when I see reports on what is going on in Barcelona. On the day of the referendum, for instance, you could have heard a pin drop in the Born neighbourhood where I live. It was a rainy day and therefore there were few people out on the streets. I spent most of the day in the centre, visiting a few polling stations in Barceloneta and all I witnessed was good humour and an upbeat mood.


Similarly, at the pro-Spain march which took place that afternoon, I saw no violence from the marchers, nor from the pro-separatist passers-by. People believe in the right to march, the right to protest, but they also believe in doing so peacefully. Whilst on the day of the vote, some of Spain’s Civil guard chose to behave in a truly appalling manner, the majority did not.

As I am fond of telling my groups, the news is news because it is something different to the ‘norm’. I have spent years living in France, Italy, and Spain and therefore have become somewhat accustomed to seeing protests; breathing and protesting fight for the order of importance in such countries. Indeed, if the weather were a bit nicer in the UK we might have fewer people writing to newspapers and more out on the streets too. However, as my group noted yesterday, as we walked past the protest, the crowd was made up of every walk of life. It was a reflection of society and behaved the same way that civilised society normally does: peacefully.

At the moment of writing it would seem that Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has called checkmate on Puigdemont, asking him to clarify if independence has been called so that he may consider whether or not to invoke article 155 which would result in Catalonia losing its right to self-rule as an ‘autonomía’. Many are hoping that the ‘seny’ (common sense) for which Catalans are famous will take over from the ‘la rauxa’ (mad abandonment) for which they are also famous. But even as this all unfolds, Barcelona remains steadfast.

Catalan Independence Rally 2

Outside my window, I can hear the children playing in the square below, the cafes are full of people enjoying an extra drink or two, as tomorrow is a day off here and street buskers are providing the soundtrack. Whilst the images may have some convinced that Barcelona has become a hotbed of violence, the Barcelona I live is the same one I have always lived. Every day I go to Santa Caterina market for my fruit and vegetables, I catch up with my lively 86 year old neighbours, one of whom feeds biscuits to a one-legged pigeon who comes to the front door each day. I take groups to marvel at the Sagrada Familia. I go to cafes with friends and enjoy an hour or so at the beach fighting a losing battle to compete with the mahogany tans of the locals.

And throughout this, I talk to friends and discuss the situation, much as I discussed Brexit and the Scottish referendum. This certainly isn’t my first rodeo. And when we have discussed, argued, debated and put the world to rights, we go to our homes, put on the televisions and watch someone else’s version of our city. For the nice thing about Barcelona is that is really is your and my city. It is universally welcoming whether you come for a day or to stay, and whilst you may think you are coming for the former, you would be surprised how many end up doing the latter.

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Lucy Ryan

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