Friday, 28 September 2012

How do you say “Estat Propi” in English?

Liam Neeson as Collins with British official, Michael Collins , 1996

Part 1: Free State and Dominion

Artur Mas avoids clarity and embraces ambiguity. He talks of his “Estat Propi” proposal for Catalonia, speaks of self-determination, and rejects terms like “independence” “break” or “secession” in relation to Spain as incompatible with his key policy of continung to remain within the EU and the Euro.

It is a realistic, wise and flexible policy to avoid these terms. Some of course say his posture is disingenuous, cunning and sneaky, but this is politics on the edge of possibility, so ambiguity helps us avoid going too close to the brink. 

We’ll begin with a little historical anecdote that should have been included in Hollywood historical epic Michael Collins, with Liam Neeson as Irish rebel Michael Collins negotiating with Winston Churchill for the British government.

In fact Collins was the deputy chief negotiator in the Irish Republican group, boss being Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffith. Churchill never appeared in the original movie. It’s 1921 so Churchill is younger, let’s say he should be played by Daniel Craig or Michael Sheen.

Back to the new scene in the movie, London 1921 - Treaty talks.
The rebels have all along called for the Republic, a word translated in Irish Gaelic as saorstát. The Brits abhor the suggestion of separation from the King's Empire that comes with being a Republic. When the Brits ask the Republicans what is the literal translation of saorstát, they are told it is “free state”.

Splendid, says the UK government, in the cigar-smoking form of Winston Churchill.
We already have South Africa in the Empire as a Free State. You’ll accept the King as your sovereign and head of state? Sure, say the Irish.
You’ll swear an oath to him?  Whatever . . .
Very well, we’ll call you the Free State. Agreed?
Yeah, says Collins, yeah, why not?

The Irish Free State was passed into UK law soon after and existed from 1922 to 1937. The (Catholic Republican) Irish saw it as a nascent Republic, which it indeed turned out to be, as from 1937 the Free State by unilateral declaration became Eire, the Republic of Ireland. The British for the time being classified it as a Dominion, a self-governing state within the British Empire accepting the British crown as sovereign authority.

Meanwhile in Ireland, both Ulster “opted out” of the new state and decided to side with the UK according to treaty conditions, and in the Free State the new Republican rebels, called "Irregulars" who refused to accept treaty partition of the island and oaths to the King, fought against the new Free State government in the Irish Civil War.

In this short but nasty conflict, as shown in the movie, Free State army commander-in-chief Collins was killed in an ambush on the orders of rebel leader Eamonn De Valera, who later accepted partition to become the first President of Ireland's 1937 Republic.

But the violent rebellion part of the Irish story is not the part I want to compare to the present situation of Catalonia. I repeat, the bloody uprising and subsequent division of Ireland does not come into the picture, because I cannot see this type of violent dynamic coming into play in Spain/Catalonia in the 21st century. Apart from anything else, this lacks a religious sectarian background as exists in Ireland. No blood will be spilled here, no armoured cars rolling onto playing fields and gunning down kids, no rebel death squads. 

The Catalan self-determination process will certainly be the kind of process they make earnest documentaries about, like the 'Velvet Divorce' of the Czech Republic with Slovakia, only much slower and more tedious, rather than spectacular Hollywood action epics of tyrannical repression and revolutionary action. I want instead to look at a much more boring picture than that… negotiated compromise.

I want to look at the diplomatic side of the picture, the type of accommodation that was seen as necessary by both hardened rebels like Griffith and Collins and a staunch Conservative unionist like Churchill. It was an accommodation partially based on a compromise of linguistic ambiguity: the Saorstát which for Republicans was (naturally) the Republic, was for the British a “Free State”, if the Irish wanted to call it that, but in fact and in the constitutional text of the new state, a Dominion like Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

"Free State", like "Dominion", and later "Sovereign State with the Commonwealth" were formulas that Great Britain found to save itself from another outright Empire rebellion as happened in the United States of America.

Saving face

This diplomatic-linguistic fiction saved face on both sides and made a negotiated peace between rebel Ireland and the British Empire possible. For fifteen years thereafter, the Free State was an ambiguous constitutional entity, both Catholic Gaelic Republic and Empire Dominion. From 1937 to the end of the century Ireland claimed Northern Ireland/Ulster in a pair of clauses in the Republic’s constitution, a type of claim which is known in international law as “irredentist”.

Finally in 1998, as part of the Good Friday Peace Accords between the UK government, the Irish government and representatives of all sides in Ulster (with the exception of the intransigent Ian Paisley) the Republic of Ireland with the 19th Amendment removed the constitutional claims on Northern Ireland and promised to respect the wishes of the people expressed in votes on self-determination.

This constitutional amendment was approved by a 94 percent vote in favour in the referendum held in the Republic.
Peace came to Ireland at last – despite some rioting and an occasional splinter-group terrorist attack - and normality was resumed, just in time for the Republic to enjoy its day in the sun as Celtic Tiger, then crash into a catastrophic debt crisis. But all that’s another story.

History Lesson 1

  • Spain/Catalonia isn’t violent like Ireland, and is very unlikely to become so
  • Some compromise and accommodation is always possible, and sometimes linguistic ambiguity helps compromise
  • There are historical entities like “Dominions” and “Free States” that exist between autonomous regional government and sovereign nation-state, and are defined as such in order to preserve cultural and trade relations
  • Hardliners don’t take kindly to basic principles being violated, but even they have to become reasonable in the end


Neither “Free State” nor “Dominion” make the grade as translations for Mas’s Estat Propi concept, though we’re on the right track looking for face-saving formulas. There are too many creepy associations of violent rebellion from the British Empire. We need to find another term…

Next time : Devolved State and Self-governing State


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