RELATIONS between Spain’s central government and the independence-seeking state of Catalonia plunged to a new low yesterday when former Catalan president Artur Mas was banned from public office for two years for helping to organise an independence referendum in 2014 that was ruled to be illegal.

He was also fined €36,000. Former vice-president Joana Ortega was banned from holding office for 21 months and Irene Rigau, a former education minister, for 18 months.

They were convicted of defying Spain’s Constitutional Court by pressing ahead with the non-binding vote in November 2014. Spanish Prime Minster Mariano Rajoy’s conservative government has vehemently opposed any bid for Catalan sovereignty, and has been accused of using the judiciary to neuter the wealthy state.

However, a defiant Mas, 61, who led Catalonia from 2010 until last year, said the verdict made them more determined and pledged that a binding referendum in September would go ahead as planned.

“They wanted us on our knees and convicted, but they found us on our feet. Looking toward the future. We will appeal this ruling and we will bring it to European courts, if necessary, and it will be necessary.

“Nothing has changed. Our commitment is clear. Catalan people will vote in a referendum on Catalan independence next September.”

Ortega added: “Today they have convicted three people, but there are many, many people behind us. Tomorrow there will be others.”

Liz Castro, from the Catalan National Assembly, said: “The fact that Nicola Sturgeon has announced a second referendum on Scottish independence while our political leaders have been fined and banned from office for merely holding a ‘participatory process’ shows the difference in the quality of democracy between Great Britain and Spain.

“The fact that the Spanish government refuses to let Catalans vote on their political future is itself one of the principal reasons to leave.

“Who would want to live in a country whose government is uninterested in their opinion and is willing to go to such lengths to keep them from expressing it?

“Catalans are a democracy-loving people determined to have their say, and this ruling will have no effect on the referendum that the current president has promised before the end of September.”

That poll has also been blocked by the constitutional court, which warned President Carles Puigdemont, Mas’s successor, and Carme Forcadell, speaker of the Catalan Parliament, that they could face consequences if it went ahead.

Forcadell responded to the verdict by tweeting: “All my support to Mas, Ortega and Rigau in the wake of this unjust sentence. Democracy should be exercised, not banned.”

Yesterday’s verdict came ahead of a visit to the UK by Catalan Foreign Minister Raul Romeva, who will address the inaugural meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia at Westminster, where he will outline how his government sees the way ahead.