The phrase Direct Rule has a certain resonance for a British and US media sensitised by the not so distant memories of Northern Ireland where the British government sent in the army to try and maintain law and order at the height of the Troubles.
Its use to describe the next stage of the Catalan crisis may be convenient short hand but it is not a phrase that the jurisprudential Spanish prime-minister Mariano Rajoy has opted to use. Instead the phrase has been Article 155, as incomprehensible on a first hearing, as Article 150 was when British MP’s finally sat down to discuss Brexit.
Article 155 which gives the Spanish government the right to take unspecified measures to restore an autonomous government to lawful conduct not only has never been used before, but it is also so broadly framed as to give the central government considerable flexibility to go in as hard or as soft as it chooses.
Nevertheless beyond dark memories of the lead up to the Spanish Civil War, there is no case history to draw on, and the government is entering unchartered territory which, quite apart from the legal challenges it might throw up, is a potential political minefield.
One of the ironies of the current crisis -not always explained by those in the international media too easily seduced by in the emotionally-charged rhetoric of the Catalan separatists – is that Catalans , far from the being repressed people controlled from the centre, are part of a virtual federal system with more than 90 per cent of its administration in the hands of the Catalan regional and even more devolved layers of local government, greater selfgovernment than most other regions enjoy in Europe
Catalonia’s autonomy may be a source of grievance for radical pro-independents, but as it stands it has been secured over years of skilful wheeling and dealing with Madrid by less radical Catalan nationalist politicians, with today only nine of cent of Catalan public sector workers employed by central government.
Autonomous rule extends across the health service, education, local media including the well funded and Catalan nationalist TV3, and the police force where the Catalan Mossos de Escuadra have grown from 15,300 in 2009 to 17,000, compared to the national police and civil guard local presence which fell from 6,500 to 5,900 during this period and just over 2,000 army personnel currently.
While in Northern Ireland direct rule was imposed drawing on a highly organised military contingency, on a province with far less locally administered resources than Catalonia, it was also done in the midst of a violent sectarian terrorist campaign.
Spain’s pro-independence campaign has been largely peaceful until now, but Catalan Nationalism remains a highly volatile issue, and Mr Rajoy is caught between rock and hard place as to how to deliver Article 155.
While’s Catalonia’s current autonomous status is enshrined in the Spanish Constitution , any move by Madrid to replace management levels of the regional administration with officials designated by Madrid, will be seen by many Catalans as an attack on their democratic institutions and way of life, and risk boosting the pro-independence campaign if nothing else out of a sense of self-preservation.
This risk is recognised by the opposition party the PSOE which, while in favour of Article 155 , is strongly of the view that it should be limited in its scope and be focused on organising new elections as soon as possible in the hope that a new more pragmatic, less radical Catalan autonomous government can be formed.
In recent weeks the Spanish media has been filled with memories of the early 1930’s when an autonomous Catalan government briefly declared a unilateral independent Republican state of Catalunya only to be intervened militarily by a democratically elected government. The president of that government , the Spanish Republican Manuel Azaña later blamed Catalan separatists for dividing Spain and fuelling the later Spanish Civil War.
Much as some journalists have a tendency to see Spain thhough the prism of the Spanish Civi War , history has moved on. These days, Mr Rajoy -no dictator if not a great statesman either- is under pressure from hardline right wingers within his own party and the leader of the centre right opposition grouping Cuidadanos to ‘punish’ the current Catalan government for its ‘rebellion’ against the Spanish state, and do whatever it takes to impose its authority, abiding by the Constitution, democratically approved in the 1970’s by a clear majority of Spaniards.
To some extent Mr Rajoy already has an important foot in the door. While Catalan companies continue to exit the region in increasing numbers and local hotel receipts plunge because of the political instability , Madrid is fully in control of the main purse strings, including payments such as salaries of public sector workers and subsidies for local special projects in addition to the powers of taxation it already had.
By contrast Catalonia has been in political free-fall for months, if not years, , is heavily in debt, has no currency of its own, and no Central Bank, and its access to credit is via Madrid. The region is today a shell of an autonomous state and the nationalism of its many citizens remains a live wire and wont easily be defused.
It is far from clear how the Mossos de Escuadra will react to being intervened, since their rank and file is divided about where the allegiance should lie, in the heart of Catalan nationalism or under orders from Madrid. As it is the extra 6,000 police dispatched to Catalonia to reinforce security, still leaves Spanish police outnumbered by Catalan police.
As for the army, Spanish voters are hugely sensitive about the involvement of armed forces publically, given that the depoliticisation of the military was one of the key policies of the post-Franco’s transition to democracy.
The security organisation in Catalonia, part of Spain which is not part of the EU but also a highly valued NATO member, so controversial on the day of the ‘illegal’ Referendum on October 1ts, may once again be challenged by a growing campaign of civil disobedience, including street demonstrations and lock-ins . God forbd there is no further Islamist terrorist outrage.
Rajoy and the King of Spain, are not alone in believing the fate of Spanish and European democracy is being played out in the streets of Barcelona and Catalan separatism cannot, must not be allowed to pursue its relentless anti-system unilateralist strategy. But Mr Rajoy will be well advised to act in way that is seen measured and proportionate , or seen that way by the civilised world inside and outside Spain.