‘No forgiving, no forgetting’: Mass demonstrations in Spain’s Catalonia to mark anniversary of banned referendum
Madrid imposed direct rule on Catalonia after it declared independence following the vote in 2017
Tens of thousands of Catalans congregated in Barcelona on Monday to mark the first anniversary of the region’s unilateral and illegal independence referendum as groups of pro-independence activists blocked roads, motorways and a high-speed rail line and surrounded the Catalan parliament.
Police in the city estimated that about 180,000 people took part in a rally in the city on Monday evening. Tensions flared between police and protesters as some hardline demonstrators jumped over barriers at the entrance to the parliament. There were similar scenes outside the Barcelona headquarters of Spain’s national police.
Crowds of students filled the city’s central square on Monday afternoon, waving yellow, red and blue separatist flags and chanting “1 October, no forgiving, no forgetting”. Nearby, others let off smoke bombs and fireworks.
The huge rallies came after members of the grass roots Committees for the Defence of the Republic occupied streets in Barcelona and Lleida and the motorways to Madrid and France. They also obstructed the train line between Figueres, Girona and Barcelona but services were restored by 10am local time.
In Girona, protesters stormed a government office, tearing down the Spanish flag and replacing it with the pro-independence estelada (starred) banner.
Catalonia’s nationalist president, Quim Torra, made a symbolic visit to a polling station in the small town of Sant Julià de Ramis, where police prevented his predecessor Carles Puigdemont from voting last October.
Speaking on Monday morning, Torra had urged the protesters to “keep up the pressure”.
“Everything began on 1 October and everything goes back to 1 October,” he said. “The lesson of 1 October and its values are what we need as we face the coming weeks and months.”
In a video message released on Monday, Puigdemont said: “Let us not stray from the only possible way to live in a full democracy: the [Catalan] republic and its international recognition.”
Puigdemont later criticised the protesters who forced their way into the regional parliament, tweeting: “If they’re wearing hoods, they aren’t 1 October people. If they use violence, they aren’t 1 October people. We did it with our faces uncovered and in a peaceful way. That is how, a year ago, we overcame an authoritarian state.”
Torra’s call for continued direct action had led Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, to remind the Catalan president of his official duties.
“We’ll keep trying to reduce tensions and maintain dialogue, and ask everyone to fulfil their responsibilities,” he said. “Order means order, and public order in Catalonia has to be guaranteed by the Catalan government, which is led by Mr Torra.”
Catalonia remains deeply divided over the issue of independence a year after Puigdemont’s administration staged the vote in defiance of the Spanish government.
The referendum was marred by violence as officers from the Guardia Civil and national police stormed polling stations, beat voters with batons and fired rubber bullets.
The central government responded to the subsequent unilateral declaration of independence by sacking Puigdemont and his cabinet, taking control of the wealthy north-eastern region and calling a snap regional election.
Although pro-independence parties retained their majority in last December’s vote, the staunchly unionist Citizens party took the most seats and polls suggest Catalans are evenly split over whether to secede.
The new socialist government of Pedro Sánchez has taken a more conciliatory approach than the conservative government it replaced, offering a vote on increased self-government but categorically ruling out a referendum on self-determination or independence.
Cracks have appeared in the independence movement, with moderate figures calling for a more realistic, long-term strategy to achieve a sovereign republic, while Puigdemont and Torra advocate pushing ahead with what they see as their mandate from the referendum.
In last year’s poll, 90 per cent of those who voted opted for independence, but turnout was 42% as unionist Catalans boycotted the poll.
However, the biggest obstacle to negotiations is the continuing detention of nine Catalan independence leaders who are due to be tried early next year for their roles in the push for secession.
Puigdemont fled to Belgium days after declaring independence and several other pro-independence politicians remain in self-imposed exile.
Spanish government ministers have acknowledged that it would be better if the jailed leaders were allowed out on bail, but have stressed that it is a judicial question rather than a political one.
On Saturday, 24 people were injured and six arrested in Barcelona after scuffles broke out at a rally held to honour the police deployed to prevent the referendum.
Reuters contributed to this report