Madrid plays its king to thwart Catalans’ bid for freedom

The reign in Spain: King Felipe addresses the nation, attacking the Catalan government

The Iberian peninsula has always done politics differently. It is just over 40 years since the generals relinquished control of Spain on the death of Francisco Franco.

But even then the transition to a constitutional monarchy was not entirely smooth. In 1981 Antonio Tejero, a lieutenant colonel in the Guardia Civil, led a coup against the fledgling democracy – stopped only by the intervention of King Juan Carlos.

It was the mid-seventies too before the Portuguese saw a transition to democracy from a military junta.

Both countries are now key players in the European Union. And more than a generation on, one might have expected their democracies to have reached a degree of maturity. For the moment Portugal seems fine, though it is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Spain on the other hand appears to be a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, leader of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, is grappling with a crisis in Catalonia that threatens the very future of the state.

From the Spanish government’s perspective the issues are clear. Catalonia is an integral part of the nation, and the regional government has overstepped its authority by calling a vote on the future of the region. Sunday’s poll was illegal and had to be thwarted.

But things are rarely that simple.

There is something deeply disturbing about a government using strong-arm tactics to stop people expressing their views – however unpalatable they may be to the state – at the ballot box.

Rajoy has addressed Catalan leaders in patronising terms, dismissing their mandate to speak on behalf of their electorate. He has sent the Guardia Civil into regional government offices, arrested officials, seized documents and taken control of computers and the means of communications. The authorities have confiscated millions of ballot papers.

There is disturbing evidence too of Spanish disregard for freedom of expression and freedom of the Press. The government has closed down more than 140 websites supporting the independence movement. And, as my colleague Mariola Terrega at the University of Stirling reported in The Conversation last week, there has been a concerted campaign of intimidation against news organisations and journalists in Catalonia.

She wrote: “The Network of Local Television (La Xarxa de Comunicació Local) told its journalists not to ask politicians questions about the referendum until the day after it had taken place. Acting on similar fears, Spanish public mail company Correos stopped distributing the news magazine Omnium Cultural to its subscribers because it contained pro-referendum advertising.”

Unsurprisingly the force of the Spanish authorities has been met with the immovable force of protestors defending their right to free speech and the right to protest – a basic and fundamental human right Spain is sworn to uphold.

The scenes witnessed on Sunday – the deployment of riot police, the firing of rubber bullets, the injuries to protestors – are disturbingly redolent of Northern Ireland at the outset of the troubles.

Whether or not there is a majority in Catalonia for independence – and there is doubt over the level of support for the secessionists – history demonstrates the risks involved in suppressing freedom of speech.

In the way the British government in Northern Ireland became a recruiting sergeant for Irish republicanism; the Spanish government seems hell bent on creating conditions that will rupture the state, feed anti-Madrid sentiment, and open up the appalling vista that, thwarted politically, some in Catalonia may resort to violence to achieve their ends.

Europe cannot, and must not, turn away from its responsibilities to protect the freedoms of all the people of Spain to hold and express their political opinions, to partake in peaceful protest, and to exercise their right as citizens to hold their government to account.

For the King of Spain, Felipe VI, this is an existential crisis. In 1981 his father stood up for the constitution and became a unifying force for the nation. Felipe has little room for manoeuver. As a constitutional monarch he can act only on the advice of the government – albeit Rajoy’s is a minority one.

He was crowned King of Spain, with an imperative to preserve its integrity. But that integrity is threatened by his government as much as by the Catalans. Sadly he did not address the international concern over the heavy handed policing on Sunday when he addressed the nation.

When he spoke to the nation, he spoke for Rajoy not for all Spaniards.

His constitutional duty is to preserve Spain, but the government’s current course of action will have the opposite effect. If he does not use his moral authority to persuade his prime minister to take a different course, the Catalan crisis will only ignite a fuse that will be difficult if not impossible to put out.

In his classic book Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell writes of his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the battle against fascism. “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all,” he says. Rajoy and his puppet king would do well to ponder that observation.

  • This is an updated version of an article which appeared in The Irish News on October 2 2017

Arrogant Britain must repent over Brexit decision

Theresa May is wrong over Brexit… she needs to stop lecturing Europe and start listening

I admit it. I am a bad loser. Nothing in the past year has done anything to reconcile me to Britain’s exit from the European Union. It is a mistake of monstrous proportions, and must be reversed.

Brexiteers would call me a ‘remoaner’, as if it is a condition of democracy that, having lost a vote, you turn your back on what you believe. If democracy means anything, it is about people arguing for what they believe and trying to persuade those who oppose them of the rightness of their cause.

If the vote had gone the other way, Brexiteers would by now have regrouped, ready to fight on to leave the Union. Why shouldn’t those who believe last year’s vote was an act of self-harm on a grand scale, do the same?

Britain is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, but it has ceased to operate like one. There is little point in picking over the entrails of David Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum. It was an abdication of responsibility of the highest order. But the vote was always ‘advisory’ only.

We elect members of parliament to make the right decisions, not necessarily popular ones. Edmund Burke, the Irish parliamentarian, understood well the dangers of an elective dictatorship. An MP, he asserted, was not a delegate slavishly following the electorate’s whim. Voters “wishes ought to have great weight with him”. But an MP did not surrender his “enlightened conscience”.

In a phrase that should be required reading for all elected to office he said: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

With every day that passes, the scale of the damage done to Britain, and the wider world, becomes clearer. We have already seen a reversal of economic fortunes, a worsening of household incomes, and a rise in hate crime. And in Ireland, we know Brexit will mean the reimposition of the border. Soft or hard, it matters little; it will be there. And no amount of fanciful thinking in Dublin or London will wish it away.

At the end of last week, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned there could be no such thing as a ‘frictionless border’ post-Brexit.

Barnier’s words are worth examining. “I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and keep all of its benefits. That is not possible.

“I have heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the single market and build a customs union to achieve frictionless trade. That is not possible.

“The decision to leave the EU has consequences and I have to explain to citizens, businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel what those consequences mean for them.”

Britain’s arrogance in expecting EU benefits without EU membership is quite simply astonishing.

If the ‘border’ between Britain and the continent is not frictionless, you can be sure that the very real border between Northern Ireland and the Republic will not be either. While the DUP continues to prop up the May government, we must assume that it is content with that scenario too.

While it would be wrong to overplay the risk to the peace process of such a scenario – we must all hope and pray that the commitment to use peaceful means alone to effect constitutional change is absolute – the simple truth is that the return of a border will hamper economic development, and undermine prosperity for unionists and nationalists alike.

To paraphrase the Prime Minister, the Tories got us into this mess, and they need to get us out of it. Within the parliamentary party there remains a majority who understand that Brexit is a disaster, though sadly they lack the will to use what power they have to fight their corner.

The fact that this is a Tory mess does not excuse Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated the voice of the left in British politics. But it is clear that his agenda is a hard Brexit too – whatever the emollient words of Brexit shadow spokesman Sir Keir Starmer.

Labour needs to face up to the fact that exiting the European Union will damage the very people it claims to represent. Until it does, the party will continue to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

  • This article appeared in the Irish News on July 11 2017

Stop the world I want to get off


It’s a sad state when unelected and unaccountable judges step up to defend Parliamentary sovereignty

You couldn’t make it up. The loony right successfully outmanoeuvres a weak and spineless prime minister to secure a vote on Britain’s future membership of the European Union.

It wins with a promise that the electorate will be able to ‘take back control’ from faceless bureaucrats. The EU referendum is all about sovereignty, they claim.

But Theresa May’s definition of sovereignty is any act that bypasses parliament – using instead the royal prerogative to impose her will.

May’s determination to ignore MPs – denying them the right to vote on triggering Article 50 to leave the EU – was anti-democratic in the extreme. The leader of a tin pot dictatorship would have been embarrassed to try that trick.

Enter the judiciary – robed and bewigged – to stop her in her tracks.

It says something about the state of democracy in the UK that it takes three unelected high court judges to leap to its defence.

And then the loony right turns on them. Incandescent with rage, Nigel Farage said: “I worry that betrayal may be near at hand.”

Let us hope so.

The Government says it will appeal to the Supreme Court. If it looses there it can always try the European Court I suppose.

The Brexit vote was an act of madness. The consequences are already making themselves manifest. Even the price of Marmite is on the rise as a result.

I respect the vote in June. But there’s nothing that says stupid decisions cannot be re-examined and overturned. Pro-Europeans have every right to use whatever tools are at their disposal to ensure Britain stays in Europe.

I’d like to preface my next observation by saying that some of my best friends are political journalists. I don’t know what the collective noun for them is. I suspect it is something like ‘A Conspiracy…’

They are always putting two and two together and making five. And I have the suspicion that often they are writing for one-another. (I am sure I do them an injustice.)

For some reason, right-wing journos are always more entertaining than those on the left. Comrades are not allowed to laugh. The New Statesman, for example, with its socialist roots, is deathly dull. The Spectator, on the other hand, once edited by Boris Johnson, is invariably good for a laugh.

This week it held its annual parliamentarian of the year awards. Gone are the days when Northern Ireland members were in contention. I’m sure their day will come.

This year May picked up the top award. But it was Boris Johnson who inadvertently let the cat out of the Brexit bag with a Freudian slip of monstrous proportions.

Accepting the award for Comeback of the Year he said he was sure the Brexit negotiations would be “a Titanic success”. Cue Celine Dion. May buried her head in her hands as guests screamed out: “It sank.”

Talking of awards, it’s good to see Glamour magazine fighting the good fight for equality with its Women of the Year awards. And well done Bono – a worthy recipient. Bono is “grateful” for the recognition. What next? A reality TV star as President of the United States? Don’t be so silly.

I was once at an opera production where, when the lights went up, a patron was found dead in his seat having passed away in the final act.

I’d love to go out like that, slipping away quietly while the soprano spends 10 minutes telling us she is just about the draw her last breath.

But I’d have been pretty hacked off if I’d been at the matinee performance last weekend of Rossini’s William Tell at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

The building was evacuated at the interval when the orchestra received a light dusting of white powder. Dandruff always looks worse on a black jacket. In this day and age, we always expect the worse, and instead of calling for the Head and Shoulders, Homeland Security was brought in instead.

The opera was cancelled, as was that evening’s performance of the Italian Girl in Algiers.

The cause was not an opera-loving IS terrorist wielding anthrax, but mild-mannered Dallas music lover Roger Kaiser. Kaiser was fulfilling the wishes of a much-loved friend who had asked for his ashes to be scattered at the Met and other opera houses.

I was reminded of the late Sir Paddy Mayhew’s ill-judged remarks on arriving at Castleward Opera to be told there had been a grenade attack in Belfast. “Well, nobody is dead,” he said. “At the end of this opera, everybody is dead.” Now it’s a case of it ain’t all over until the fat lady is incinerated.

And finally, on Tuesday it’s the US Presidential election. Aided by the ever-suspect FBI, Trump is making a comeback. Let us pray.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on November 5 2016

Rise of the mob marks the end for democracy




Representative democracy is protection against the rule of the mob

It is a sign of desperation when a columnist reaches into history for inspiration. And desperate I am. Like many readers, I voted Remain in that noxious referendum.

In Northern Ireland, we are sensitised to the fact that our membership of the British family palatable only because it is subsumed within something bigger. The European Union was the key to peace in Ireland, and it took a man of vision like John Hume to realise it.

His search for peace was the single biggest act of statesmanship in twentieth century Britain or Ireland that I can think of. The Nobel Peace Prize was insufficient recognition.

Hume is a man who invested all his being in the power of politics to effect change, and he is a parliamentarian to his core. (It is remarkable how many Irishmen can claim to be among the finest performers in the so-called Mother of Parliaments: Burke, Parnell and Hume dominated in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries respectively.)

I don’t intend here to rehearse once more the pros and cons of continued membership of the EU, or to dwell on Northern Ireland’s chances of remaining within it. Arlene Foster is no Nicola Sturgeon.

I am more interested in what the vote and its aftermath, and the collapse of ‘normal’ politics, says about the structures of governance so essential to maintaining peace, security and stability.

The result is further evidence of the terminal decline of the democratic experiment. Winston Churchill, speaking in 1947, made one of his most celebrated observations:

“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

There are many weak links in democracy. It is a system that depends on human beings behaving well, and putting the interests of others ahead of their own. It asks a lot of those who participate in it, the theory being that enough of us are wise enough to counter those who are not. That cannot be guaranteed.

The people are sovereign, but experience tells us they cannot be trusted completely. Many a despot has ridden to power on the back of the mob. Hitler used the ballot box to get his grip on power, and then destroyed it.

We know we need to be saved from ourselves, and for this reason the most successful political systems build in checks and balances to protect themselves from populism and its negative effects.

And here we come back to one of those great parliamentarians. Edmund Burke, educated in that crucible of Irish learning Trinity College Dublin, was one of the greatest political thinkers in these islands, and a parliamentarian par excellence.

He championed the cause of American independence, Catholic Emancipation and the shift of power and authority from the monarchy to parliament. But Burke had his concerns about the limitations of the democratic process. He knew that the power of the crowd had to be restrained.

There is within us all the DNA of the lynch mob.

For Burke, the protection came from the development of a representative parliamentary democracy.

He wanted Members of Parliament to understand the needs and desires of their constituents, but to act in their best interests rather than slavishly following their demands.

He set this out clearly when he said: “Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

“Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole, where not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole.”

This speech, to the electorate in Bristol in 1774, forms the basis of one-nation conservatism, and it set the tone for parliamentary democracy in Britain and Ireland for the next 250 years.

The referendum was an abdication of the principles Burke set out. As a result (and this is not because I am a sore loser, which I am) politics has let us down by pandering to the mob.

If we continue to crowd-source decision making, the veneer of democracy will barely cover the nakedness of an elective dictatorship, and we will all lose out.

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on July 8 2016