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Sound of banging pots in Barcelona brought me back to the early Troubles

Plaça del Sortidor yesterday. Picture by Robert McMillen
Robert McMillen

It’s never a good idea to compare our situation at home with international disputes although sometimes it can’t be helped.

Walking through Poble-Sec, a working class area in Barcelona on the way to my hotel, the air was suddenly shattered with the sound of pots and pans and balconies being banged, from high up in apartment blocks down to the cafes at street level.

It reminded me of the early Troubles when bin-lids were bashed to warn that the British Army had come into an area.

The racket in Barcelona, however, was the sound of Catalans announcing their approval of the referendum which was held yesterday on the question of independence.

Some think the campaign is a protest against Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s Partido Popular with its brand of neo-libralism which has done very little for the vast majority of Spanish people but draws much of its revenue from the successful Catalonia economy.

A Center for Economic and Policy Research paper has found that “Spain’s current economic recovery is unlikely to resolve the problem of mass unemployment in the foreseeable future.”

As someone said, Catalonia is like the son who is earning all the money for the household but he wants to leave home. Of course the parents will do everything to keep him in the fold.

Last year, Catalonia contributed 19 percent of Spain's GDP and is the second richest region in the country after Madrid.

But there is more to the demand for independence than economics.

The cramped little Chinese-owned bar in the Poble-Sec area of Barcelona where I was having a coffee was showing the Simpsons, dubbed into Spanish, while the group of five pensioners sat singing verses of half-forgotten songs.

However, when the television screen changed to pictures from a rally in Madrid where thousands of people where demanding that Spain remain united, one of the Catalan pensioner got up from his seat and gave the Nazi salute to the television.

“Fascistas,” he shouted.

Feelings obviously run very deep in Catalonia and no more so than this weekend when the autonomous community in the north-eastern part of Spain held a referendum on whether it should seek complete independence and become Europe’s newest nation-state.

In Poble-Sec’s Plaça del Sortidor I got up at 7am to watch the start of the vote in the historic referendum, an illegal act according to the Madrileño authorities, an act of sedition, an attack on the Constitution and an affront to the rule of law.

What choice had it but to fight it tooth and nail?

However, in Plaça del Sortidor, there was an anxious hope that all would go well. A slow internet, thanks to the Spanish authorities, was holding up Catalan democracy but these people had waited all night to secure their right to vote for their future - despite the teeming rain outside.

“Votarem” was the constant cry - We Will Vote” as volunteers gave out free espressos and biscuits.

The long wait took a sinister turn, when people found out on their phones that the Spanish-led police force, La Guardia Civil, had left the ships they had been stationed on and were making their way in to the city.

One old woman on a walking stick asked me if they were coming to Plaça del Sortidor and I said they probably wouldn’t - the streets around the square were too narrow for large police vehicles which seemed to calm her nerves.

As people watched videos of police violence - it reminded me again of October 5 in Derry when the RUC attacked a Civil Rights march - the mood became more apprehensive but that added to the strong determination to vote.

It would be very wrong to suppose that every Catalan is in favour of independence. Many are very happy with the status quo and feel that the group behind it Junts pel Sí, are “a delicate coalition if not toxic alliance of extreme left and right, called for a referendum without any parliamentary debate” as one friend described it to me.

However, watching the elderly people of Poble-Sec put so much faith in the democratic process was touching to watch.

We will know soon enough if the new Catalonia is on its way. It will take a lot longer to see what it finally looks like.

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