LAST weekend I returned to Catalonia on the sixth anniversary of their independence referendum held on October 1, 2017. I travelled as part of a cross-party delegation from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Catalonia.

One of our main aims was to learn about innovative work taking place in Catalonia on the decarbonisation of the energy system. I spent a day at the Hydrogen Valley in Tarragona where ground-breaking work on the substitution of grey with green hydrogen is being carried out.

I also visited the Port of Tarragona which is working hard to convert itself into a truly green port. I hope as a result to facilitate links with similar work taking place in Scotland, particularly through the Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC) and with the centre for green hydrogen both based at Heriot-Watt University in my constituency.

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Catalonia has a vibrant economy and contributes more to the Spanish state than it takes out, but everywhere I went I heard from businesspeople who feel that the Spanish state bypasses Catalonia when it comes to investing in infrastructure and distributing EU funds.

This is partly because of the historic tensions between the federal government in Madrid and the regional government of Catalonia fuelled by Catalan resistance to the Franco dictatorship, cultural differences, and the push towards self-determination in Catalonia in recent years.

Readers will recall that representatives of the SNP and political parties from across Europe attended at the request of the Catalan government to observe the 2017 referendum and were shocked by the violence perpetrated by the Spanish civil guards on voters. One man lost an eye due to a rubber bullet. With my own eyes I saw old ladies who had been beaten black and blue for the “crime” of going to a polling station to vote.

Yes, the Spanish constitution, unlike the British constitution, prohibits the secession of any part of the Spanish state and yes, the referendum was held in breach of that rule, but the violence meted out on those who dared to vote was not what one would expect to see in a western democracy.

The National: BARCELONA, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 11:  A man waves a Catalan Independence flag, know as 'Estelada', on a roof of a building during a demonstration on November 11, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Independence movement associations and political parties called

The Catalans voted Yes but the result was not recognised. Some of their leaders fled to avoid prosecution, others served jail time, some are still fighting their cases.

Many activists expected a unilateral declaration of independence in the wake of the vote, but the politicians baulked at this and six years on there is a stalemate not entirely without parallels to the situation we face in Scotland.

The parallel lies not in the constitutional background, which is very different but, in the struggle to find a route to make the right to self-determination real.

Now after a Spain-wide election, the Spanish socialist leader needs the votes of pro-independence Catalan representatives to form a government. Under discussion is an amnesty for all those prosecuted or still at risk of prosecution for their part in the referendum.

This extends beyond political leaders to ordinary men and women who opened schools and public buildings to allow them to be used as polling stations.

Many face financial penalties and disqualification from public office. But the independentistas we met said an amnesty is not enough – they want concessions from the Spanish government on a route to their secession.

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For me as a human rights lawyer perhaps the most interesting meeting we had was with Josep Costa, a lawyer and political scientist who has been working on the issue of secession and self-determination for 25 years. He spent time at Edinburgh University working with the late great Professor Neil MacCormick on these and other issues.

Josep was involved in drafting the laws which facilitated the referendum, he went on to be elected as an MP and became deputy speaker of the Catalan parliament.

In this role he found himself facing criminal charges for contempt of court because he refused to abide by instructions to not continue debating issues around self-determination and republicanism.

As a wily lawyer, Josep represented himself and refused to appear in court because he said the case violated his parliamentary privilege and that therefore the court had no jurisdiction.

His case is now before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR, below) as part of several Catalan cases about parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech. There are two other groups of cases about the imprisonment and violation of the rights of political prisoners.

The National: The ECHR is ruled on by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (Alamy/PA)

We asked Josep what he thought about the discussions around an amnesty. He replied that he and his comrades did not call the referendum to get a pardon for doing it but to get their independence. If there were to be an amnesty, then all the cases before the ECtHR would fall. That might be rather convenient for the Spanish government. The cases before the ECtHR raise important issues over the independence of Spanish judges who heard some of the cases.

The issues about parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech are also very important.

Indeed, they could even be of some relevance to attempts by the likes of Baron George Foulkes to shut down advancement of the independence cause by Scotland’s democratically elected parliamentarians.

READ MORE: ‘How could this happen in a democracy?’: Lessons to learn from Catalonia's referendum

It will be remembered that he has of late been active in stirring the pot over whether it is legitimate for the Scottish Government to spend funds to plan for a second independence referendum or promote the cause of independence.

He appears to be of the view that this is a matter that the Scottish Parliament may not legitimately spend time on.

Indeed, as reported by this newspaper, he has called for Scottish ministers to be personally fined for working on projects outside the powers of the Scottish Parliament and even raised the possibility of barring them from holding office.

Has he too been on a fact-finding mission not to Barcelona but to Madrid to get tips on how to silence those with whom he disagrees?

The National: Lord George Foulkes

Curiously back in 2021, the very same George Foulkes (above) voted in favour of a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe prompted by the persecution of Catalans by the Spanish state and Kurds by the Turkish state. The resolution was entitled “Should politicians be prosecuted for statements made in the exercise of their mandate?”

The very clear import of the resolution was that they should not.

Indeed, the whole direction of travel of the motion was to ensure that all member states of the Council of Europe ensure that politicians enjoy freedom of speech and refrain from imposing restrictions not covered by the Convention on Human Rights as interpreted by the court. I am looking forward to reminding George of this next time I see him at Westminster.

Finally, the most enjoyable meeting I had in Catalonia occurred by chance. On Saturday evening, I bumped into Clara Ponsati who is now back in her home of Barcelona.

Over drinks and dinner Clara expressed her appreciation for the unwavering support she received from many in Scotland during the years the Spanish were trying to extradite her. She left me with a signed copy of her book The Case of the Catalans: Why so many Catalans no longer want to be part of Spain.

It is worth a read. Like this book, what struck me most about the pro-independence Catalans I met last weekend was the eminent reasonableness of their position. It is perhaps because of that the Spanish government have tried so hard to silence them. This attack on freedom of speech like all others must not be allowed to succeed.