Madrid ignores best practice for intrastate conflict resolution


Picture of Dominic Keown
Dominic Keown

Dominic Keown is Professor at Fitzwilliam College at the University of Cambridge

“Politics” for Germany’s first Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, was “the art of the possible.” Though Prussian values may have fallen rightly from favour, there is no doubting the efficacy of realpolitik in the democratic arena. Sadly, its absence has been all too noticeable in Iberia, where a lack of statesmanship and historic compromise has brought chaos to Catalonia with the abrogation of four decades of devolution.

The prime cause of the crisis has been the refusal of central government in Madrid to negotiate – that is, to embrace the values and strategies that have achieved the resolution of intrastate conflict elsewhere in the world. In Northern Ireland, for example, open-ended dialogue without preconditions led away from the silence of antagonism to productive effect. Those involved — though fiercely and bitterly opposed — found a means of accommodation which, though problematic, established a basis for workable and enduring cohabitation.

A crucial ingredient, of course, was the mutual acceptance of the need for mediation. All stakeholders realised that entrenched positioning — like the current head-on collision between Catalonia and Spain — was leading nowhere; and that a climate of trust could be made possible only by external arbitration, which came in the persons of US Senator George Mitchell and General John de Chastelain of Canada.

Repression and the criminalization of political dissidence do not solve intrastate conflict but prolong it

Chastened, no doubt, by the experience of Ulster, London subsequently handled the thorny question of Scotland’s demand for national realignment with finesse. The Edinburgh Agreement for a referendum on Scottish independence epitomized Bismarck’s art of the possible, as central government privileged political realities over dry legalities. The first article of the Act of Union, stipulating the permanent bond uniting both countries, was held in abeyance as was the questionable validity in law of the Agreement itself (precisely like the Good Friday Agreement before it.)

The UK approach to Northern Ireland signalled a salutary sea-change. For decades during the Troubles, Westminster had refused to engage with ideological dissidence and, like the British government’s Spanish counterparts today, placed it outside the law. “Crime is crime is crime; it is not political,” was the catchphrase of a series of governments. Their rejection of negotiation ensured the conflict lingered on until finally, after years of entrenched violence, the realisation grew that the solution was to be found in the arena of politics.

This example of successful political resolution makes the stasis in Spain especially disheartening, as Madrid has not woken up to the fact that it stands at a similar crossroads, though thankfully free from the threat of terrorism. By insisting on fastidious compliance with the letter of the law, the central government has imposed a rigidity that stifles initiative and rejects dialogue. What is more, the world outside simply does not buy this interpretation. Experts have argued that the 1978 Constitution is not set in stone but allows a more flexible reading than that determined by the Constitutional Tribunal. Ten of the twelve judges on this body are appointed by politicians in Madrid, and it seldom disappoints its centralist sponsors.

Such legalistic myopia leads to semantic absurdity. Inspired by their judicial appointees, Spanish politicians label their Catalan counterparts “anti-democratic” and “seditious” because they reject the Tribunal’s ruling. Can such an inflammatory condemnation be justified? In the 2015 regional election, held as a plebiscite on Catalonia’s right to decide, an absolute majority of Independentist deputies was returned. As such, by organizing a referendum, the Catalonian government merely carried out the will of the electorate. In what way is this anti-democratic? Yet, ironically, the whole executive now stands charged with sedition — or worse — precisely for carrying out its manifesto promise.

As for the European Union, by standing idly by it has done nothing to justify its reputation as a force for peace and justice

Similarly, on 1 October 2017, folk on their way peacefully to vote were labelled as Nazis, fascists or “demophobes” by caucuses in the rest of Spain. These same caucuses then praised – in the name of law and order – the state police’s ransacking of polling stations and the use of force against innocent civilians, including plastic bullets, which left 893 people in need of hospital treatment. Subsequently, ignoring denunciation by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission on Human Rights, centralist parties further endorsed this brutality, claiming it was used “proportionately” against “law-breakers”. Like their British counterparts during the Troubles, they persist in confusing civil disobedience with insurrection, political dissidence with criminality, legality with justice and repression with conflict resolution.

The King, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and their supporters would do well to reflect on the dreadful impression this causes in the world at large. The degree of force used by the police, its subsequent endorsement by authorities and the apparent witch-hunt against independentist politicians have furnished the Catalans with tacit international approval for their desire to leave Spain.

As for the European Union, by standing idly by it has done nothing to justify its reputation as a force for peace and justice. Its refusal to mediate or apply political pressure condemning the patent abuse of a civilian population in its own back yard challenges its credibility as a defender of human rights. Who cannot be perturbed by the memory of the 1930s, when a similar form of appeasement and non-intervention were Western Europe’s woeful response to a crisis in the Peninsula?

Meanwhile, the lesson of Northern Ireland, Quebec and Scotland remains unheeded. Repression and the criminalization of political dissidence do not solve intrastate conflict but prolong it – whereas negotiation, mediation and consultation offer the opportunity for cohabitation and resolution.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo