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Catalonia − living in the shadow of bitter conflict

PUBLISHED: 12:11 03 October 2017

People queuing to vote at schools in Badalona, where Simon Berrill l lives. This was the queue at Progrés Primary School, which his son Pol attends. Picture: MARTA MEMBRIVES

People queuing to vote at schools in Badalona, where Simon Berrill l lives. This was the queue at Progrés Primary School, which his son Pol attends. Picture: MARTA MEMBRIVES

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“I’m just taking Pol down to vote,” said my wife, as my 10-year-old son followed her out the door: a perfectly normal thing to do in any normal Western European country. Not in Catalonia. Not on Sunday.

Although I knew Marta would take care of him, I had to suppress a flicker of fear as they headed for his primary school, our local polling station, for the Catalan independence referendum.

Since breakfast we had watched, horrified, as images of uniformed thugs (I won’t dignify them with the name of police) smashing their way into polling stations, beating innocent voters and destroying ballot boxes succeeded one another on our TV screens. “I hope they don’t smash up my school,” said Pol, visibly concerned.

The roots of the Catalan-Spanish conflict go back even before the Spanish Civil War, but when I moved to Catalonia 18 years ago no-one was thinking about independence as more than a vague dream.

But the incompetence and intransigence of successive Spanish governments in dealing with real issues affecting the Catalan people, like finance for health and education, and the continuing rampant corruption in the right-wing Partido Popular, which now rules Spain but is weak in Catalonia, has led to a tremendous upturn in pro-independence feeling.

The Catalan pro-independence parties are no angels, of course.

There has been corruption there too and an over-reliance on getting people demonstrating on the streets, but in pressing ahead with the independence referendum, declared illegal by the Spanish courts, the Catalan government was left with little choice.

Since it announced it would hold the vote, the Spanish authorities have offered no negotiations, no concessions, nothing at all. So it was push on or give up, and Catalans are determined people.

That’s how we arrived at Sunday’s awful scenes. Dreadful though it was, the police brutality in itself didn’t surprise me.

What struck me was the utter stupidity of the orders the police had obviously been given, beginning their savage assaults at the very polling station in the village of Sant Julià de Ramis where the world’s television cameras had gathered to watch Catalan Prime Minister Carles Puigdemont cast his vote.

After that, it only got worse: old people brutalised and pushed down stairs; attack batons, rubber bullets and tear gas; and one poor young woman who had all her fingers deliberately broken.

So by the time Marta took Pol down to cast her vote, I had plenty to worry about, but we were lucky. He played football happily in the playground with his friends, some of whom had spent the night in the school with their families to make sure it would be able to open as a polling station first thing in the morning, while his mother queued, voted and chatted with other parents.

Not fanatics, not mad nationalists, but ordinary people like us who have had simply enough of the Spanish authorities and the lies and hate spread about the Catalans in the biased Spanish media.

Just occasionally there was an alert, when someone saw something that might have been a police van, and the cry went up, “The children, the children!”, so they could be got out of harm’s way. But they were all false alarms and my family came home safely.

By the evening, the result (90% of the 2,200,000 who voted and didn’t have their ballot papers stolen by the police in favour of independence) hardly mattered. The shock of what had happened still weighed heavily.

We were pleased to see the full horror of the day’s events had been picked up by the international media and astonished that Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy could claim the referendum hadn’t happened and the security forces had just been doing their job.

His attitude is converting people to the cause of independence faster than any Catalan nationalist ever could. After Sunday, I doubt Spain will ever win them back.

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