NICOLA Sturgeon yesterday became the first European head of government to back the Catalan independence vote.

The First Minister refused to go along with a consensus emerging among leaders agreeing with the Spanish authorities’ view that the vote was not legal.

In contrast, Sturgeon said the “strength of feeling” among voters in Catalonia could not be ignored and she recognised that they had “overwhelmingly” voted for independence.

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“Despite all of the challenges and the horrendous scenes we saw in

Catalonia on Sunday, the overwhelming majority of those who voted voted for independence,” Sturgeon said in an interview with the BBC. “Spain maintains the views that the vote is not legitimate and not legal, but that kind of strength of feeling cannot simply be ignored.

“I think what’s really important now is that there is dialogue and a way forward is found that respects the rule of law but also respects democracy and the right of the people of Catalonia to choose their own future, whatever that is.”

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Sturgeon’s position was markedly different from those of other government leaders who, while condemning the violence of the Spanish police, said explicitly that they would not recognise the result of the vote.

Around 90 per cent of Catalans voted for independence on a voter turnout of 42 per cent.

Images of Spanish police brutality were beamed across the world as voters in Barcelona and elsewhere posted videos and photos on social media showing officers from the Guardia Civil firing rubber bullets in the crowds, beating up voters and pulling people out of pooling stations by the hair. Almost 900 people had to be treated in hospital.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was among those who threw his weight behind Spain.

He said his government would not recognise the result of the Catalan referendum and gave his backing to the Spanish Government.

Asked if his government would recognise the result, he said: “No we won’t. We accept and respect the laws of Spain, the constitution of Spain and the territorial unity of Spain.

“It would appear less than half of the population participated in this referendum. Admittedly it wasn’t easy for people to participate, but that’s a separate issue. “We respect, of course, the laws and constitution of Spain, which is a friend and ally of ours.

However, Varadkar added that he was “distressed” by the scenes of violence, adding that it only leads to “radicalisation”.

Earlier yesterday, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said he trusted the leadership of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy “to manage this difficult process”.

Schinas said: “These are times for unity and stability. We call on all relevant players to now move very swiftly from confrontation to dialogue. Violence can never be an instrument in politics.”

Schinas added that Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Rajoy would engage in talks later.

Meanwhile, the United Nations human rights chief called on the Spanish government to ensure “thorough, independent and impartial investigations” into acts of violence linked to the vote.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said he was “very disturbed” by Sunday’s violence in Catalonia and that police responses must “at all times be proportionate and necessary”.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights said the situation should be resolved through political dialogue.

Zeid, a Jordan who goes by his first name, also urged Madrid to accept “without delay” the requests of two UN-mandated investigators on freedom of assembly and minorities to be granted access to visit Catalonia.

Rights office spokesman Rupert Colville said the two UN special rapporteurs had sought the access before the weekend’s violence.

Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont has called for international mediation to solve the deadlock.