THERE are many incredible stories from Catalonia’s “wildcat” referendum in 2017, stories that reveal the ingenuity and determination required from tens of thousands of volunteers to hold a national plebiscite against the furious resistance of the central state.

One of the best is how they managed to get the ­ballot boxes into all of the polling stations. The ­Spanish ­police (Guardia Civil) had seized the boxes in the days prior to the vote, but the Catalan ­government managed to get more imported just in time, and this time they were stored at a secret location in France.

The operation to get them to voting booths for ­October 1 while evading the Guardia Civil was ­complex logistically, and involved elements of ­­camouflage. In one city, Sabadell, a bin lorry quietly made its way from school to school.

“They were disguised as bags of trash,” a ­volunteer said, “but this was democracy we carried in our hands.”

Five years and one day have passed since that ­remarkable referendum, which is most remembered around the world for the shocking police violence at polling booths just to prevent Catalans exercising their democratic will. Despite the brutality, Catalans did vote: just over 2 million were cast for Yes, 177,000 for No.

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What happened next is well known: after weeks of mass protests in defence of the vote, the Catalan Parliament finally declared the Catalan Republic at the end of October, leading the Spanish Government to impose Article 155 of the constitution, dissolving the Catalan Parliament and placing the nation ­under ­direct rule from Madrid. The Catalan President, ­Carles Puigdemont, fled into exile in Belgium, while nine other ministers in the government and social movement leaders were arrested, thrown in jail and given a combined prison sentence of 100 years.

“The Nine” would later be pardoned under a new Spanish Government led by Socialist Prime ­Minister Pedro Sánchez, but over 3000 Catalans in some way related to the referendum vote have faced the wrath of Spain’s highly-politicised judiciary, with many still imprisoned. Judges have even sought to ­impose ­themselves on devolved Catalan competencies, ­seeking to enforce an increased use of the Spanish language in schools, for example.

A new scandal broke out earlier this year ­after it was revealed that Pegasus spyware had been ­installed by the Spanish state into the phones of 65 ­pro-independence politicians, activists, lawyers and computer scientists, the largest case of espionage ­using the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus tool – which allows the hacker complete access and control of the target’s phone – so far. “Catalangate” brought down the head of Spain’s secret intelligence ­agency, Paz ­Esteban, but no politicians have been held ­accountable.

The referendum now commonly referred to as “1-O” shook Spain to its core while at the same time generating a repression which has been painful for Catalan society to endure. On the fifth anniversary of 1-O, I visited Barcelona to speak to a variety of Catalan politicians, activists and researchers to find out the true legacy of the referendum and the next steps for the independence struggle.

One of the remarkable aspects of the ­post-referendum era is that despite the fact the high-stakes gamble of a wildcat referendum and a ­unilateral declaration of ­independence did not lead to ­independent statehood, the parties which had led that ­process were not punished by Catalans in ­subsequent elections, far from it.

In the first election after 1-O in ­December 2017, Catalans voted for 70 pro-independence MPs, a majority in the parliament and up three on the ­previous election. In the most recent 2021 ­election, that number rose to 74. It’s clear ­Catalans primarily blamed Madrid for what ­happened.

Despite this enduring popularity, the pro-independence parties have struggled to coalesce a way forward after 1-O. The Spanish Government has doubled down on its opposition to the right of Catalans to decide their own future despite the pro-independence majority in the Catalan Parliament. Meanwhile, ERC, which at the time of the referendum was the second pro-independence force and now is the leading party in the parliament, has moved to a position of insisting on an agreed referendum with Madrid.

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Oriol Junqueras (above), ERC President who was one of the Nine imprisoned ­following the vote, wrote a controversial reflection on the 2017 referendum two years ago, stating that an important lesson was that 1-O “was not seen as fully legitimate by a large part of society, including Catalan society”. Therefore, the route must be “the Scottish way”; “the path of pact and agreement”.

This has led ERC to pursue a “dialogue table” with the Spanish Government since it became the leading party in the parliament in the 2021 elections, seeking to negotiate an end to the judicialisation of the dispute and a democratic way to ­ resolve the Catalan question.

The dialogue table has faced criticism from within the independence ­movement. One veteran independence activist and author, Toni Strubell, tells the Sunday National that it is “absurd to believe anything can come out of a ­negotiation at this stage” given the ­Spanish ­Government’s intransigence, but Jordi Solé, ERC MEP, disagrees.

“The current government in Madrid has engaged at the negotiating table, has agreed that this is a political problem ­requiring political solutions, but it is true that it has been very difficult with them to move forward and to agree on how to solve our conflict,” he says. “Nonetheless, we are obliged to take any opportunity we have – whether it’s small or big – to talk and negotiate and put on the table different proposals.”

This stance has frustrated the Catalan National Assembly (ANC), one of the main organisations of the pro-independence social movement, which has been sharply critical of ERC’s leadership of the coalition government, arguing that they are not fulfilling their mandate to pursue independence. ANC’s President, Dolors Feliu, tells the Sunday National that an agreed referendum with Madrid is not the only path.

“We are looking at other ways to achieve independence, including to ­Scotland, where there is another referendum on the table, and if not Nicola Sturgeon has said there is a possibility for a plebiscitary election,” she says. “We think the same way: that’s possible and it’s a democratic way. If it can’t be with a referendum then there are other ways.”

Competing interpretations of the Scottish solution reflect the tensions within the movement, which were exposed at this year’s “La Diada” (Catalan Day) ­protest on September 11, when ERC boycotted ANC’s mobilisation for the first time in over 20 years. Despite the boycott, the protest was a success, with 700,000 demonstrating, bigger than last year’s La Diada. JxCAT and CUP (the radical left pro-independence party) both participated and criticised ERC for its abstention.

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The growing divide reached ­breaking point on the eve of the 1-O anniversary. Last Tuesday, Aragonés told the ­Catalan Parliament that he was pursuing a new policy, a “clarity agreement” with the Spanish Government which would lay out the basis upon which Catalan ­self-determination could be triggered. The Spanish Prime Minister instantly rejected the proposal.

Together fo Catalonia (JxCAT), ERC’s pro-independence coalition partners, believed the new policy was a breach of their coalition agreement, and joined with CUP in calling for a confidence vote in the President. That move ­infuriated Aragonés, who sacked the ­vice-president of the government, JxCAT’s Jordi ­Puigneró, in response.

“What happened this week crossed a red line,” Solé says, defending the ­sacking of Puigneró. “Your partner in a coalition government asking for a vote of ­confidence in the President? This is not how to be. Everyone should be together in facing the current situation, which is very challenging.”

For the ANC’s Feliu, the split in the government reflects long-lasting divisions.

“There’s really different views about what the country needs and that is the reason for this divide,” she says.

At time of writing, the coalition government teeters on the brink of collapse, with JxCAT responding furiously to Puigneró’s firing and threatening to pull out of the government if a set of conditions are not met by the President. The drama is a curious backdrop to the 1-O anniversary, a referendum which only happened because of the unity of the three independence parties in supporting it in the face of fierce resistance from Madrid. That unity is very evidently evaporating.

For economist and independent ­researcher Sergi Cutillas, the fight ­between ERC and JxCAT over Catalan ­independence strategy is a phoney war.

“They promise that independence can come soon without really believing it, and when people start to perceive this as a lie, that’s when credibility gets eroded and people get demoralised,” he says.

“The reality is it’s a miserable fight ­between two parties to control the ­narrative for a bit of power.”

Cutillas says that the movement should be more focused on building a viable ­programme for a sovereign country than on the narrow tactics of how to achieve a referendum, a lesson he believes should have been learned after 1-O.

“At the time of the 2017 referendum, there was no room for discussions which were very necessary: what happens with the European Union? Who are going to be our allies? Who is going to ­support us when we declare independence? And what is the economic model for an ­independent Catalonia?”

Following the referendum, 1501 ­corporations moved their headquarters outside of Catalonia, while the EU and the United States sided squarely with Spain. For Cutillas, this showed that the Catalan independence movement’s ­problem isn’t “only the Spanish state”.

“The European Union is also a problem for Catalan independence, so is global capitalism and imperialism, and all these things are highly integrated with Spain,” he says.

“You can become independent, but to do that you need a really ­outstanding effort that comes from the grassroots, a genuine revolution from below, ­something that is autonomous from elites,” he argues.

“And that’s what independence really is, it is popular sovereignty; ­independence of the working class.”

This vision clashes with that of Solé, who believes that independence in the modern world means something ­different.

“Achieving independence in the 21st century, we are talking about sovereign states not being 100% independent,” he argues. “There is interdependency, there is globalisation, but it’s about being able to take most of the decisions, maybe not alone, as part of the EU – which means transferring some sovereignty – but at least becoming an independent state means you have the choice or the ­opportunity to take decisions and share the responsibility for the decisions.”

The Catalan independence movement is diverse, it has strong social ­movements which are politically independent of the three parties represented in the ­Parliament. And these parties span from centre-right to centre to radical left.

That diversity can sometimes appear as a weakness when the movement turns in on itself, as is the case now. However, it is also a strength when the movement is on the up as there is fertile terrain for a real debate about the what, how and why of Catalan independence, and it’s through real debate that better solutions are found.

“Anyone wishing to write us off knows very little about historical processes,” Strubell says, defiantly. “Nothing has been put an end to. I’ve no time for ­sulking and regrets.”