The terrible events in the Barcelona region last week are beginning to fade from the international headlines. When Catalonia next returns to the headlines hopefully it will be for a peaceful referendum on independence to be held this autumn.
The flags are out in force in Barcelona fluttering in a wind that many residents hope is blowing towards self rule. The terrorist attacks united Spain, indeed King Felipe VI was cheered when he visited Barcelona, but this was unity in the face or terror, in the face of the calls for independence the old splits will emerge.
The referendum is scheduled for October 1st. Already the symbols of Catalonia are everywhere; on flags hanging from windows in homes and shops, on cigarette lighters, beach towels, t shirts, and even on cakes.
The most common symbol is the flag of Catalonia known as the ‘Senyera’ – a Catalan word which is a synonym of bandera or ‘flag’. It has four red stripes on a gold background and dates to at least the 12thC when it represented the Crown of Aragon ruled by the Count of Barcelona. The latter was also known as Wilfred the Hairy upon whose golden shield the four stripes were drawn by fingers dipped in his own blood following a battle with a Moorish army. The empirical evidence for this is scarce, but as with most flags what matters is the
emotion not the truth of the matter and to this day it known as ‘Els Quartre Dits de Sang’ – ‘The Four Fingers of Blood.’
Rivalling the Senyera for popularity recently is the Estelada – a similar flag but with a white star on a blue triangle at the hoist side. While the Senyera does not necessarily indicate a position on independence, the Estelada is the standard of the separatists and was inspired by Cuba’s struggle to break free from Spain in the 1890s.
Both flags have been used as a symbol of resistance against rule from Madrid, especially during the Franco dictatorship. The fascist general banned the Estelada. He also identified himself, and the dictatorship, with Real Madrid inadvertently ensuring that the Barcelona club would become part of the resistance. The connection between football and politics continues to this day.
In 2016 FC Barcelona was due to play a cup final in Madrid. The police were ordered to search fans for the Estelada on the grounds that it was ‘an inflammatory symbol’. The football club argued that this was an attack on freedom of expression, a judge agreed, the flags were allowed and many of the supporters from Catalonia duly flew them, insulted King Felipe VI who was present, and barracked the Spanish national anthem.
Earlier that season FC Barcelona had been fined by UEFA after fans waved the Estelada flag and 17.14 minutes into a game chanted ‘Independencia’ in memory of the fall of Barcelona to Castile in 1714. These supporters are part of the core of the independence vote. Such sentiments would have been considered completely out of place last week – but they will return along with the pro and anti independence campaigns.
The region is Spain’s richest region comprising 20% of its economy despite having only 16% of its population. Nevertheless, not all Catalans want independence, many are content with regional autonomy and you can still see the nation state flag flown from private homes and not just from official buildings. The Spanish government says the referendum is illegal and an independence vote will not be recognized. This, and the fact that an independent Catalonia would have to wait years to enter the EU mean the result is far from clear. Nevertheless, the political battle is on – and being fought in full colour.