I welcome the Minster of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Cannon. I believe it is his first time in the new Chamber.
Situation in Catalonia: Statements
He is very welcome to our temporary home. The Minister of State is a former Senator himself.
I am, that is true. I am very impressed with the new surroundings. It is a beautiful room in a very historic part of the building.
It is a great hall.
These statements in this House today and the statements in the Dáil yesterday are a very welcome opportunity for us all, as public representatives, to consider and discuss the current situation in Catalonia, a place that holds a special affection in the hearts of so many Irish people. What happens in Catalonia and Spain matters to all of us. We know Spain very well. I know that very many of us, and the people we represent, have spent time living, working, studying or just holidaying in Spain, particularly in Barcelona, one of the great European cities. After Britain, it is the country that Irish people travel to most. Cities and towns across Spain are home for many Irish people. In addition, 1.8 million visits were made to Spain from Ireland during 2016. A growing and welcome element of this traffic is connected with the increasing numbers of Spaniards living in Ireland, and of course the many Spanish students who join us during the summer. We all want the best for Spain and its people, and it is because we know it so well that we were so shocked by the violence that occurred on 1 October and why we sincerely hope that nothing like it happens again. I know that some Members of the Oireachtas also visited Catalonia, including on that October weekend, and their perspectives and experience can help contribute to our consideration of the situation there.
Tensions are running high, but the fact is that Spain is an established democracy where citizens have full rights protected by the rule of law. In any democracy, political developments must take place within a legal framework. This is not a procedural point. This is a fundamental requirement if the rights of all citizens are to be protected. Respecting the rule of law, its possibilities and protections but also its limits, is not a choice but an obligation. The resolution of the current crisis needs to be within Spain's constitutional framework, through Spain's democratic institutions. That view was repeated by my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, in the Dáil yesterday. The freedom to express contesting views is an essential check and balance in any democracy, but differences of opinion must be contested with full respect for the law and the rights of all citizens. This is the foundation that underpins and protects modern democratic societies. We can disagree with the law. We can work to change the law, but we cannot ignore the law or act beyond the law.
In Catalonia, and elsewhere in Spain, as in all our democracies, public representatives and all citizens must work to advance their goals within democratic institutions, such as parliaments, with full respect for the law. Clearly any decision on a question as important as independence requires legitimacy. It requires legitimacy both in terms of the broadest possible political consensus and in terms of a sound legal framework. On that basis, the referendum vote of 1 October cannot be accepted as legitimate. I do not believe that it provides the basis for a declaration of independence. The holding of this referendum was also ruled illegal by Spain's constitutional court. It is clear, including from the massive gatherings that we have seen in Catalonia, that many there support independence, but we know too that there are many others who do not support independence, and it would be wrong if their views were not fully taken account of.
In early September, a small majority of the regional Catalan parliament voted through referendum and transition legislation in controversial circumstances. Those in parliament opposed to the measures, who made up nearly half the region's parliamentarians, argued that the legislative process breached the parliament's own procedures as well as being illegal. Spain's constitutional court later ruled the legislation illegal. This is a complex political issue and it is for politicians to resolve complex political issues through dialogue and empathy. It is this political dialogue rather than escalating tensions that we all want to see, but dialogue needs to respect the constitution of Spain, the rights of all citizens of Spain and the regional and national parliamentary institutions that represent them. Any political action outside of that framework lacks legitimacy and cannot claim to respect the plurality of opinion in Spain, or in Catalonia for that matter.
I am conscious that there have been many calls for external involvement in the resolution of this matter, particularly after the violence that occurred on 1 October. However, the Government's position is that in Spain, as in any other country in the EU, internal political and constitutional arrangements are the prerogative of a country and its people and should be determined by them, through the institutions of the country and in accordance with the rule of law. Internal divisions, contesting aspirations and robust debates are to be expected in any democracy, but they have to be resolved in keeping with the rule of law. Constitutions can be changed, as we know, but that has to happen in a constitutional way. I, therefore, welcome the cross-party support in the Spanish Parliament for the establishment of a committee to consider the issue of constitutional reform, which may address some of the current concerns.
I am very concerned at the impact on people's lives that the political uncertainty has given rise to, including the decisions of over 1,000 companies to transfer their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia. I am also dismayed at reports of fractures within families and communities to which this divisive issue is giving rise. The validity and legitimacy of political effort requires, as I have said, securing the broadest possible consensus within the law. Citizens also deserve the certainty that the rule of law extends to them. That is why I remain of the view that it is for all Catalans and all Spaniards to arrive at a shared view on what steps within their laws and their own democratic institutions might best support a process of resolution. Clearly this is proving difficult. The decision taken by the Spanish government to apply article 155 of the constitution marks a significant point. Nonetheless there still remains an opportunity for engagement. We hope that leaders take the necessary steps to return to the space where differing views are contested through national and regional democratic institutions, with full respect always for the law and the rights of citizens. Upholding the constitution and the rule of law in all its aspects is a key underpinning of all democracies. Ireland respects the constitutional and territorial unity of Spain. The Government's position remains that the constitutional and political arrangements in Spain are matters to be determined by its own citizens, though its own institutions, and in keeping with its own laws.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House to discuss events in Catalonia. There is significant cause for concern in the violence that was perpetrated in the region during the attempt to hold a referendum on independence. I have no doubt that some 100 years ago, there were people in Parliaments around Europe pointing to the need for the rule of law to be upheld in Ireland as it attempted to leave the United Kingdom. I am sure the first Irish Parliament, of which this House is a successor, was described at the time as undemocratic because it did not comply with the constitution of the UK. However, that is all a matter of historical record.
In terms of what is happening in Catalonia and what the Spanish Government is doing in response, we would all agree that people should, of course, be allowed to have their say. If the Catalonian population chooses to have a referendum, it should be permitted to take place. That desire by the people to exercise their democratic rights was facilitated in Scotland and Quebec, but it has not been accommodated in Catalonia. We do not know whether the majority of Catalonians are in favour of independence, because the numbers differ depending on which opinion poll one is consulting. Spain, like the European Union, has evolved and changed over time. Having come out of the era of Franco and gone through the establishment of the various autonomous regions, which were given some level of local powers, there is nothing to say it cannot evolve and change once again. The challenge for the Spanish Government is that in saying to the people of Catalonia that democracy will not be allowed to have its say, the Catalonians are being left with very few alternative courses of action. The long and unfortunate campaign by Basque separatist groups and others was the absolute opposite of democracy. People must be shown that democracy works and will be allowed to work.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the proposals by the Spanish Parliament for the establishment of a parliamentary committee. This is essentially an issue for the people of Spain and Catalonia to resolve, but that does not mean we cannot raise our concerns regarding incidences of violence. There was no reason for the violence that took place. The referendum could have been allowed to proceed without any need for stopping people from going into polling booths and sanctioning local police to use force. The Spanish Government could have allowed the ballots to be counted and simply ignored the result if it so chose. It is often the case when such conflicts arise, as we saw in this country 101 years ago, that reactions by governments can lead to exactly the opposite outcome to what is intended. The path the Spanish Government is going down runs counter to its own arguments. The Spanish cannot talk about democracy while allowing their police force to beat up pensioners. Nobody in this Chamber or in this country would support the Spanish Government's approach to the crisis it faces. The situation has been going on for decades or centuries, depending on which view one takes, but the response by the Spanish authorities has been appalling and should be condemned by everybody.
We all hope the matter can be resolved and that a fair committee will be established which allows for a referendum on independence, as happened in Quebec, if that is what the people of Catalonia decide. As I said, it is not clear whether a majority of Catalonians would vote to leave Spain. The point is that democracy must be supreme. If we do not allow people to have a democratic say, then we leave them with very little alternative. They can either sit tight and accept that democracy will not have its say or they can seek out alternative routes to what they wish to achieve. That was the approach taken by the British Government to events in this country 100 years ago. We do not want the same situation to evolve in Spain but it will require the authorities there to learn lessons from the mistakes of the past in regard to the establishment of this Parliament and the treatment by the British authorities of the will of the Irish people. Of course, the will of the Irish people was not in compliance with the constitution of the UK at the time, which is not to defend the rule of law under the British regime. The United States constitution stated at one time that a slave was not entitled to be a free man. In other words, constitutions are not always right.
We all hope for an end to violence in Catalonia and a peaceful outcome to the current conflict. The European Union has a role to play in achieving that but the first requirement is that everybody who saw the violence must condemn it. As we know, governments acted within the law to prevent marches in Northern Ireland. People just wanted their civil rights but were beaten off the streets. The law said that could be done because the marchers were not complying with the laws passed by Parliament. That approach ultimately leads down the wrong road and we must ensure Spain and Catalonia do not take that road. The Catalonian people must be allowed to vote in a referendum on independence, if that is what they choose to do. How the issues are resolved in the long term is a matter for the populations of Spain and Catalonia. We hope the Catalonian people can be allowed to make their own decision as to the best outcome for their region. It is not acceptable that a country which purports to be a democracy would allow pensioners, students and others to be beaten when they are simply trying to exercise their democratic rights. Nobody in this Chamber would condone such activity. As democrats, we must condemn a situation where people who were engaged in what was essentially an opinion poll, because of the manner in which it was not allowed to function properly, were denied their right to do so. There is a difficult balance to be achieved in this instance but we must condemn the actions of any government that resorts to beating what it claims to be its own citizens. As I said, the same thing happened in Northern Ireland when the police force there attacked the citizens it was supposed to protect. The world saw what happened in the North and condemned it. Unfortunately, it led Northern Ireland down a road we all regret.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for his statement on recent happenings in Catalonia. I recently spent a week in the region during which time the referendum was to take place. There was not a single day that I did not go down to the Palace of the Generalitat to observe the protests. We must be very clear that what happened is unacceptable. With all due respect, it is disappointing to note the failure of the Minister of State, in line with the same failure on the part of the Government, to condemn this violence unequivocally. We in Europe need to learn from our history. The proposal on which the Catalonian people were to vote asked whether they wished to be ruled or administered by a new republic. As we know, a true republic is about equality, access, dignity and allowing people to exercise their rights in a democratic way. I am a strong advocate of the republic. We must never lose sight of what a true republic is about and what it represents.
The European response to the crisis has been disappointing. Whether one is from the Basque region, Catalonia, Madrid or any other part of Spain, one is a European. All of those people are citizens of the European Union and should, as such, be protected. The EU should be defending the rights of its peoples. I do not wish to say too much about the internal workings of Spain because I recognise there are particular constitutional arrangements to do with the administration of the country and so on. We in Ireland would resent - and do resent, in some cases - any interference in how our country is run. It is disappointing that member states of the EU and the institution itself have not come out strongly on this issue. We are seeing the beginning of a fragmented Europe both in the realm of economics and in respect of a shared culture and sense of belonging. People are becoming more and more alienated and the space that has opened up is being filled by extremism. We must be conscious of that and of the lessons of history. My understanding of the EU was always that it would defend the rights of its citizens.
The European Union and its predecessors assisted this country greatly in getting, and vindicating, rights on many issues and we owe a great deal to it. That is my real concern. We must acknowledge that all people in Spain are citizens of the European Union and the European Union should stand firm in solidarity with its people.
The Government needs to come out unequivocally and condemn the violence. I saw the violence there; I speak as someone who witnessed people being intimidated, being clobbered over the head and being dragged, viciously beaten and kicked by the authorities there. Irrespective of what authority they had, it was not right and proper. As politicians, or for that matter as citizens, we do not suspend our critical faculties. We do not have to remain silent or be gagged because we are members of the club called the European Union. We do not have to stand shoulder to shoulder and let it go on. If we fail to condemn it, we are part of it. That is my concern.
There were young people, old people, families, workers and the unemployed. There was a vast range of people there but they had the right to gather in a public place. They had the right to have a view, and to express their view. They had the right to disagree and whatever about the constitutionality of the referendum - that is a matter for Spain and other authorities - nobody had a right to beat them, humiliate them and walk all over them. What is more disturbing is that the Union, our country and other member states of the European Union did little in response.
I make a prediction. There will be European Parliament elections in 2019. Young people do not want to support or be part of a Europe that stands idly by and does nothing but, more importantly, whose leaders turns a blind eye to violence and humiliation and do not allow people peacefully assemble and talk about a new vision and a new way for their country or region. I certainly do not and I am in my 50s. That is what is at stake. For most people in Europe, it is not actually about the entire workings of Spain. It is about the great organisation called the European Union that was going to stand shoulder to shoulder with us in solidarity, that remembered the Europe of the past and that advocated for a new Europe of the future, but it has failed abysmally. What will happen is people will move off and vote for different extremes and that vacuum will be filled.
I hope these matters will be resolved internally by agreement. It makes economic sense. It makes sense for many reasons. It is a matter for the Spanish people to stick together, to consolidate, to grow their economy, their country and their opportunities for what a great country it is.
We have a road to travel too, and that is my criticism today. I understand the Spanish Senate is meeting on Friday and it will discuss this matter. I understand, even from today's news, that there is ongoing negotiation and dialogue for a resolution. As democrats, we have to welcome that. Hopefully, we will have a resolution to this dispute. Let us be clear that we, if we sit idly by, will lose people. The European ideal, the expectation that it would stand in solidarity with its people, is steadily being lost and it is something we need to wake up to.
The Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, correctly stated that what happens in Catalonia in Spain matters to all of us. We know Spain well. Many of us and the people we represent have spent time living, working, studying or just on holiday in Spain, particularly in Barcelona, one of the great European city.
How true that is. I live in the west of Ireland and Knock is my local airport. There are five direct routes from Knock airport to Spain. I will fly from Knock Airport with my partner and child next Saturday to Malaga. Although Malaga is not in Catalonia, this shows how close the relationship is between Ireland and Spain. There is also a direct to Faro from Knock airport.
The Minister of State said that Irish people travel to cities across Spain and it is the destination of some 1.8 million visits. We are very close to Spain. It is effectively our escape, for warming our bones, etc. Since the 1930s, Spain has been so close to us. We must not lose sight of the fact that Spain is an established democracy where citizens have full rights and are protected by the rule of law.
It is evident that Catalonia remains tense. Spain's Prime Minister announced over the weekend that he would invoke a never-used provision of the Spanish constitution to remove elected leaders of Catalonia from office because of their support for independence. In response, the far left CUP party described Madrid's action as an act of aggression against all Catalans. There are reports that Catalonia's political leaders intend to bring a legal challenge to prevent the Spanish Government from removing them from office and taking over running the region to stop its push for independence.
We agree that the real worry in what we saw is that the rise in political tensions will spill over into something more sinister on the streets of Barcelona and elsewhere. I readily condemn the actions of the police. I saw it on television. It was very upsetting. Certainly, it was unwarranted. It is imperative that this dangerous conflict is resolved as soon as possible through talks and dialogue rather than any manifestation of violence.
It is also clear that this political crisis is having an economic impact. Some say it is huge. It certainly has had an impact in Catalonia. Caixabank, Spain's third largest bank, has reported it suffered a moderate but temporary run on deposits due to the crisis over the independence bid. The bank, until recently, was based in Catalonia but now has transferred its headquarters to the Valencia region.
I am aware that the situation in Catalonia is being monitored by our Government. It is very serious. Earlier this month, the concern about the situation was conveyed to the Spanish authorities by the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, at a meeting with the Spanish ambassador.
I reiterate that upholding the constitution and the rule of law in all its aspects is a key underpinning of all modern democracies. The Government's position remains that the constitution and political arrangements in Spain, as in any other member state of the EU, are a matter to be determined by its own citizens through its own institutions in keeping with the rule of law. The Government has made it clear that any decision on a question as important as independence requires legitimacy, both in terms of the broadest possible political consensus and in terms of the legal framework. On that basis, the referendum vote in Catalonia cannot be accepted as legitimate - it is an aspiration - and does not provide the basis for a declaration of independence. The Irish Government cannot recognise or accept a unilateral declaration.
As I said, I hope the Government is conscious that tensions remain high. It is important that steps are taken to reduce tensions. I hope that the parties concerned can find a way to do this as soon as possible and work out a way to discuss their differing views in dialogue.
Since the crisis began, the solution remains the same. It is for the parties there to arrive at a shared view, and I agree with setting up a group on what measures might best support a process to resolve this crisis. As we all will be aware from our experience on this island, violence has no place in politics. While the situation is still precarious, we all hope the voices of moderation on both sides will prevail in order to defuse this growing political crisis.
The EU certainly did not emerge well out of this. It seemed to take a step backwards. However, I hope that we will work together and ensure that calm heads can pave a way through this difficult decision.
We talk about a Europe that is united but fragmented. Issues such as these are boiling over in many areas of the EU, in the Basque country and in the Veneto in Italy, for example. How can the EU and European Governments deal with such areas?
If Senator Feighan is sharing time he had better hurry up as there is only a minute and a half left.
I can share time with Senator O'Reilly, yes.
Is that agreed? Agreed. I call Senator O'Reilly.
I thank Senator Feighan for sharing time with me. We have to recognise at the outset that Catalonia has long had a distinctive culture, history, and social, economic and geographical conditions. It is a distinct region and its autonomy has been recognised in the past, in 1979 for example, though subsequent rulings of the constitutional court have diluted that somewhat resulting in later difficulties.
The Spanish Government's reaction to the referendum is within the law as laid down by the Spanish constitutional court. The point needs to be made, however, that it has been overly heavy-handed in its approach. The police overreacted considerably to the referendum, ultimately injuring 900 people.
The second point that needs to be made is that the representatives of the Catalan local administration must act within the law. The proper Government reaction would be to take a more reasonable approach and enter into dialogue with the Catalan representatives. The onus is on the Catalan politicians, meanwhile, to abstain from illegal activity. I hope that, within the auspices of the European Union and through the Members of the Spanish Parliament, a process of mediation can arise and produce a settlement that preserves a level of autonomy and self-government in Catalonia while still maintaining the overall integrity of Spain.
Go raibh maith agat. Tá nóiméad anois ag an Seanadóir Ó Clochartaigh.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I hear much talk of law in this debate and in the conjecture surrounding it but there seems to have been no talk of international law and international human rights. The debate here seems to be very selective about which law and who has to obey the law.
The right to self-determination is enshrined in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, both approved by the United Nations in 1966 and ratified by Spain in 1977. Article 1.2 of the Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice recognises the right to self-determination. The Spanish constitution of 1978 establishes in Article 96 that international treaties ratified by Spain form part of its domestic legislation and Article 10.2 establishes that the rules on fundamental rights and public freedoms shall be interpreted in accordance with international treaties on the matter.
The Parliament of Catalonia has continuously and unambiguously expressed Catalonia’s right to self-determination. A resolution on self-determination was adopted on 1 December 1989 along with subsequent resolutions in 1998, 2010 and more recently the approval of the declaration of sovereignty and the right of the people of Catalonia on 6 October 2016. This also confirmed a parliamentary majority in favour of independence. UN Resolution 1999/57 proclaimed the indissoluble links between the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the foundation of any democratic society. The International Court of Justice has stated that the only limitation on the right to decide that the court regards as enforceable is the unlawful resorting to force or other serious violations of the rules of international laws. I was in Catalonia on 1 October and nobody could accuse the Catalan people of unlawfully resorting to force or other serious violations. One could certainly accuse the Guardia Civil of this, however.
A recent report by a commission of international experts has concluded that there is no international legal prohibition barring a sub-state entity from deciding its political destiny by assessing the will of its people. EU member states have recognised many former sub-state entities that assessed their people's political will and decided to pursue independence. The EU, therefore, recognises the right to decide. Are we now saying that we, as members of the EU, do not recognise that right? International human rights also respect the rights to free speech. International human rights do not close down hundreds of websites illegally, as the Spanish state did before the referendum. International human rights recognise the right to freedom of assembly. International human rights do not attack civilians at polling stations.
It is obviously quite clear that the relationship between the Spanish and Catalan Governments has deteriorated incrementally since 1977, with less and less autonomy and the blocking by the Spanish state of progressive legislation passed by the Catalan Government on a number of issues, including homelessness, marriage equality, bullfighting and education. The recent referendum was overseen by a team of international independent election observers led by an Irishman, Michael Grange. I will read an extract from his report:
Yesterday we witnessed events that no election monitors ought to ever witness. We hope to never witness scenes of this nature ever again. We saw numerous and repeated violations of civil and human rights. We are shocked that this happened at all, even more so as it is clear to us that it was a centrally orchestrated, military-style operation carefully planned. We are stunned that armed masked officers entered polling stations with the purposes of preventing a peaceful democratic process. Despite these issues, and other difficulties, people experienced trying to vote. I want to emphasise that we did see a day of voting yesterday. We wish to acknowledge the peaceful nature of how the Catalan people acted yesterday. We witnessed many acts demonstrating the strong will of the people which showed that they were determined to have their say and let others have their say through the ballot box, including the elderly and disabled.
As can be expected, there is a lot of disinformation out there. The 43% vote cited reflects the final recorded number of ballots actually counted. This does not include votes in ballot boxes removed by the Spanish police. This, then, is actually a remarkable percentage and surprised even the Spanish Government. On the eve of the vote the Foreign Minister declared that there would be no real voting. Spain did everything possible, both legal and otherwise, to prevent voting: hacking into computer systems; closing down websites; as well as the violence that we all saw on television. The brave people who voted, including a number of wheelchair users, ought to have their voice respected. Do they not deserve to have their rights respected under international human rights law? I think that they do and I think that our country has a role in ensuring this happens.
It is quite ironic that we are hearing so much talk here about obeying the law when we consider some of the players involved in the Catalan situation. It is interesting that the Partido Popular, Prime Minister Rajoy's party, is currently implicated in more than 60 cases of corruption, 31 of which involve 835 party representatives being charged. The response from Rajoy's executive has, from the start of the current legislature, taken the form of a strategic change that consists of disabling the key institutions that uncover and investigate corruption in Spain, namely, the state Attorney General's office and the anti-corruption public prosecutor. This de-activation was designed, I am told by the Minister for Justice, Mr. Rafael Catalá, through the appointment of the state Attorney General, Mr. José Manuel Maza, and the Chief Prosecutor for anti-corruption, Mr. Manuel Moix. The three have been reproached and condemned by the Spanish Parliament for obstructing the investigation of corruption cases, among them caso Lezo. Rajoy's party, then, does not exactly shine as a bright beacon of legality.
It is also interesting that the decision taken in the Spanish Parliament to impose Article 155 has really been taken by three parties: the Partido Popular; the Partido Socialista Obrera Espanol, PSOE; and Ciudadanos.
It is interesting that none of these parties has elected MPs from the Catalan region. As such, they do not have popular support in Catalonia, yet they are imposing their will on the 7 million citizens of Catalonia and failing to recognise the will of the region's people in democratically electing Carles Puigdemont as their President and a parliament that wanted the right to self-determination vindicated. I am disappointed the Committee on Procedure has not yet allowed an invitation to be sent to President Puigdemont to address the Seanad. We should not be bossed around by anybody about who can or cannot speak in this Parliament.
I support calls for international mediation, including the calls made by Kofi Annan and the Elders and Amnesty International. We must recognise that this is an international issue of fundamental human and civil rights. We cannot be bystanders in this case which is a challenge to the basic principles of democracy. If it were to happen here, we would seek support internationally. We had to call for international support to mediate in this country in the past and this is what all 7 million Catalans are calling for. Ireland has been, and is viewed as, an honest broker and we have a good reputation internationally with regard to peacekeeping. We could and should play a role in helping to facilitate a process of dialogue. We must wake up to what is taking place without being afraid to call it out.
As time is tight, I ask the next speaker, Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, to conclude on time to allow Senator Bacik to contribute.
I will endeavour to do so. Many of the points I wished to make have been made by Senator Ó Clochartaigh so that should be possible.
We have heard many references to the rule of law being invoked as if it is a magic card that can be played. The rule of law has a context. We are duty bound to protect and support a rule of law that is linked with a democracy and respects human rights in a free civil society. Many countries have a rule of law and those of us who have travelled internationally will have visited some where the rule of law is imposed and does not have regard to considerations of self-determination, democracy, human rights or civil society. Let us not use the term "rule of law" in a blanket manner and instead be clear about what type of rule of law we mean.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh eloquently highlighted an area of immense concern for people in Ireland and the rest of Europe. We need international law, international human rights law and respect for freedom of expression, assembly and self-determination. There is no doubt the actions taken by the police, at the direction of the Spanish Government, against those who were voting or seeking to vote in the recent referendum in Catalonia violated human rights. The evidence was provided by those from Ireland who were in Catalonia and it was visible internationally. The response of the European Union, including Ireland, has not been adequate. Prime Minister Rajoy has spoken of the "firmness" and "serenity" shown by the police in their actions. We have heard discussion in the Oireachtas about the violence but we have not had a strong message from Europe properly condemning the violence, demanding action in response to it and asking whether our concerns about human rights breaches are being addressed. The message we sent to the Spanish Government was one of impunity for its actions.
The Government has spoken at length about its concerns about the rise of populism and there is constant discussion about the importance of the centre holding. However, a blind eye is being turned in the face of authoritarianism, which is, in many cases, a much greater danger than populism. Authoritarianism, which is bound into the rise of populism, is on the rise in Poland, Hungary and Austria where far right parties may be part of the next government. We know what authoritarianism looks like as we saw it in Catalonia, not only in the actions taken on the day of the referendum but also in the shutting down of websites and the arrests of civil society leaders on charges of sedition. We have seen this play book enacted in many parts of the world. Why do we not speak up against it when it takes place in Europe?
The task of peace building in Europe has been deeply neglected in recent years. Securing borders, the predominant narrative, fits in with the narrative of policing and might is right. The diplomatic skills required to meet the challenge of having people who disagree with each other find ways to engage in dialogue and build peace together seem to have been forgotten and neglected. The challenge of peace building was the reason for European integration in the first place.
Of all countries, Ireland, with its legacy of building peace and experience of war, cannot wash its hands of the task of peace building and promoting diplomacy. There is no doubt that dialogue, space and time are needed. When President Puigdemont chose not to immediately implement the decision on independence and stood back from the brink at the request of Europe, he created a space for diplomacy and dialogue. This window of weeks has been used by Spain to make arrests of civil society leaders, hold further trials and engage in more sabre rattling.
The threat to invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution is extremely dangerous. Regardless of whether one attributes credibility to the results of the referendum, the people of Catalonia voted for the Catalan Parliament and Mr. Puigdemont as their President. Invoking Article 155 sends a direct message to those in Catalonia that their vote is being disregarded. This message will drive a further wedge between Catalonia and Spain.
I am sad to see fragmentation in Europe. I would like to have a Europe of strong, autonomous regions which can work together. What we should see in Spain is a credible coming together of regions of different cultural traditions and with different backgrounds and working together with respect and in autonomy. What we have saw in 2012, however, was a push by Prime Minister Rajoy to diminish autonomy when he used the issue as a political football for electoral purposes. Europe stood back and did nothing because during the period of austerity, important issues such as Europe of the regions, ensuring an equitable spread of development and prioritising measures to support social cohesion were pushed to the side for the sake of short-term national fiscal targets. This has exacerbated tensions in regions across Europe.
I am concerned by the outcome of votes in Lombardy and other parts of Europe. When Europe's wealthy countries failed to send a signal solidarity to the poorer countries of Europe and we have, at the highest level, President Macron and, to some extent, Chancellor Merkel, speaking about a two-speed Europe, we send a message that might is right and the wealthiest must look out for themselves. This is the signal we also send to wealthy regions in countries which may wish to pull away and emulate the type of division we have seen. The fragmentation of Europe is a real and dangerous threat and we need to step up to the challenge. We cannot wash our hands of this issue. Ireland should step forward and insist on a strong chastisement of the actions taken by Spain. We must also put ourselves forward as an honest broker and offer ourselves as a mediator or demand a non-EU external mediator.
I welcome the Minister of State and the opportunity to have this important debate. Like other Members, I know Spain well from many visits there. The eruption of this constitutional crisis is shocking. It was particularly shocking to see the violence that erupted on 1 October and the heavy-handed response by Prime Minister Rajoy and the Spanish Government. It clearly inflamed the crisis and strengthened the independence movement. We should hear stronger words of condemnation from the Government of the actions of the Spanish Government. That is crucial. The scenes were shocking, as was the fact that 900 people were injured. The subsequent political arrests of pro-independence people were also shocking. It was an inflammatory move by Prime Minister Rajoy. He and his Government have mishandled the separatist question as a result.
That said, I certainly would not support a unilateral declaration of independence by Catalonia. Like my party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, I disagree with those in this House and elsewhere who call for unthinking support for Catalonian independence. We must also be clear that the so-called independence referendum took place outside a constitutional framework and that independent observers declared that it did not meet the standards required and so forth. However, Prime Minister Rajoy's response was appalling. There has not been sufficiently strong condemnation of the violence by the central government from our Government.
Furthermore, this issue is continuing to unfold. There are ongoing developments. Tomorrow, the Parliament of Catalonia will meet to decide on its response to the threat of direct rule from Spain, another heavy-handed tactic on the part of the Spanish Government, after which the Spanish Senate will return to the matter. The strongest words of wisdom are the words of The Elders who spoke through their chairman, Kofi Annan: "The constitutional crisis that is unfolding in Spain calls for consultation and not confrontation." The Elders have urged the Spanish Government and the regional government of Catalonia to renew their commitment to a resolution through dialogue and to find a peaceful path. One thing we in Ireland know is the importance of peaceful dialogue.
As Europeans, we have lessons to learn from what occurred in the former Yugoslavia and, indeed, from what has been happening more recently in Crimea and Ukraine in terms of declarations of independence and the assertion of rights of self-determination that have consequences, may be complex and have to be navigated and negotiated through peaceful means. That is very important.
I also refer to the recent statement by the president of the Party of European Socialists who criticised both sides in this dispute, pointing out that by calling an illegal referendum Catalonian nationalists tried to bend the rule of law to their advantage but by hiding behind police and the judiciary the Spanish Government stretched Spain's institutions, gave up on politics and fed extremist positions in both camps. Ireland should condemn the Spanish Government's inflammatory moves and seek to encourage all involved to work towards a peaceful resolution.
Finally, it is not good enough for the European Commission to describe the crisis as an internal matter for the Spanish. In the past we saw the EU fail in its response to the breakdown of the former Yugoslavia. The EU must recognise that this is an important matter which cannot simply be brushed aside. It is more than an internal matter, particularly when we see the police tactics used on the streets of Barcelona. There is a middle ground. Many people in Catalonia would not have supported the vote for independence and did not turn out on 1 October for that reason. Equally, they were disgusted by the Spanish Government's tactics.
There must be stronger words from Ireland and a strong indication of our support for any peaceful attempts to resolve this crisis, recognising, of course, that there are ongoing issues and that the crisis is unfolding as we speak.
Acting Chairman (Senator Gerard Craughwell)
The Minister of State has four minutes to reply.
Is there time for me to speak?
Acting Chairman (Senator Gerard Craughwell)
No. I am sorry, Senator, but we finish at 4 p.m. The Minister of State was allocated four minutes for a response.
I am willing to give the Senator a chance to contribute and I will shorten my contribution at the end.
Acting Chairman (Senator Gerard Craughwell)
The Senator has two minutes.
I will take no longer than two minutes. I feel very strongly about this subject. The reason is that I, like many others, witnessed Catalan women being dragged, kicked and assaulted on the referendum polling day. It would not be right for me as an Irish woman parliamentarian not to speak out on the subject.
What efforts have been made by the Government to call for dialogue between the Spanish and Catalonian administrations? The response of the Government is indistinguishable from the Partido Popular's Government line. As a people recently familiar with the importance of open dialogue for resolving political disputes we should be seen to forward a solution-based negotiation. The Taoiseach's recent comments on the possible Border poll under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement have not helped the situation. Referendums are a democratic expression of political will and should be treated with due respect.
There is an urgent need now for dialogue. It is clear that the Spanish Government will not initiate or facilitate this. It is up to the EU leaders, therefore, to ensure that the collective pressure of the EU is used. The Taoiseach should demand this at the next EU Council meeting. Whatever anybody's views on the demand for Catalonian independence are, there is an irrefutable electoral mandate there and it should be respected. This mandate should form the basis of negotiations without preconditions. The Spanish Government's position of pretending that the referendum never happened is not tenable. The first step it must take is to acknowledge the support for independence. I remind the Spanish Government and the EU that this was a key moment for Catalan independence. I would almost go so far as to say that it assures independence in the same way as young people and others across this island were politicised in 1920 after the first Bloody Sunday, in 1972, 1981 and 1916. In all cases people were politicised and motivated. I foresee the same thing happening again.
However, the imposition of direct rule by Madrid is folly, as is direct rule being imposed in the North. We cannot sit on our hands. We must play an honest and active role in protecting human and civil rights.
I thank the Senators for their contributions. Ireland has always worked constructively with the Spanish Government to build bilateral and trade relations and to pursue our common goals at both EU and international levels. Of course, we are monitoring developments in Spain closely so we can better understand our EU partner. We are paying particular attention to any potential impact that events might have on Irish citizens. The Department is following developments closely and is responding to the concerns of Irish citizens both in the Houses and outside.
The Government continues to give this matter its full attention. My colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee, spoke on the matter in the Topical Issue debate on 21 September. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, as well as the Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, have spoken with the Spanish ambassador on the issue. There were statements in the Dáil yesterday by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and I am happy to have the opportunity to update the House this afternoon. The Taoiseach discussed Catalonia with Prime Minister Rajoy on the margins of the recent European Council. I and the Government condemn the violence that occurred on 1 October. The Government is very clear that there is no room for violence in politics and it is important that there should be no repeat of that violence. Such actions are counterproductive. Political progress must be pursued through dialogue.
The Government supports a resolution to the current situation that is based on democracy and the rule of law. I reiterate the Government's position that this must be determined by Spain and its people based on the rule of law and through their institutions. It is through such democratic processes that all voices can be heard and a way forward found. Of all nations in the EU, we should understand that. We are now entering a phase where there is potential for confrontation. None of us wishes to see further clashes or injuries such as those that occurred earlier this month. Dialogue is the way forward so there can be a peaceful outcome.