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The Catalan Independence Issue: A Restorative Dialogue

The Catalan Independence Issue: A Restorative Dialogue

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At the beginning of 2019, the ACNV (Association of Nonviolent Communication) of Spain invited me to facilitate a series of learning events on restorative circles in Spain. In June this resulted in two training events (one in Madrid and one in Barcelona) and a 2 ½ day dialogue working with the conflict in Catalonia. This article is based on my experience and understanding of what happened, and my best attempt to share accurately some of what was shared during this dialogue. It represents my attempt to demonstrate the potential power of Restorative Dialogue to transform even very polarized situations. 

Catalan independence has been a big story in the news throughout the last year, and I have read about or watched on the news stories about: a series of mobilizations, a referendum on independence, the proclamation of the Republic of Catalonia, a trial, sentences of imprisonment, etc. Catalonia appears to remain deeply divided over the issue of independence. A controversial referendum on Catalan independence in 2017 saw 90% of participants opt for independence on a turnout of 42% (according to the Catalan government).  According to The Guardian article (Oct 27, 2019) popular support for seceding from Spain – which reached a record high of 48.7% in October 2017 – currently stands at 44%, with 48.3% of Catalans opposing it. 

A few local civil society organizations had attempted to create dialogue with people from both sides of this conflict but they were quickly overwhelmed with the pressure put on them by one or other of the various groups from each side of this issue. So it was with some trepidation, caution, and also hope that the Barcelona team began exploring the possibility of doing such a dialogue. And it was with great surprise and gratitude that they found many individuals and organizations stepping forward to support this dialogue happening. The end result was that thirteen people from various positions surrounding the independence of Catalonia or remaining with Spain gathered for 2 full days of direct dialogue (as well as one prior day for pre-circles) – the first time this has taken place since the independence proclamation by the regional government in Barcelona and the jailing and trial of several regional ministers. 

Dialogue with observers silently attentive 

Due to the highly sensitive nature of this topic and the relative consequences for those participating (some families could not touch the issue and have broken up; some people were affected in their work or even have lost their jobs; others have had to take medication for anxiety, etc.) there were many considerations that we needed to weigh carefully. One such consideration was whether the dialogue would have observers. Typically there are no observers to restorative dialogue – if you’re in the room you are part of the circle of dialogue. But for many reasons, especially those related to deepening learning for potential facilitators (as part of an extension of a training), and the recognition of the huge community impact such a dialog could potentially have and wanting to therefore include as many people from the community as possible, it was decided to invite observers to the dialogue. We had between 35 – 40 observers for each day of the dialogue. We took time to prepare the observers and to offer them roles and responsibilities during the dialogue. And we of course checked in with all the dialogue participants to address any needs they may have around people observing them in dialogue. In the end, as I’ll talk about later, the observers were not only a wonderful support for the dialog container but also provided a significant gift to the dialogue participants as we closed the circle.

The dialogue began cautiously with some participants stating, relatively dispassionately, their position related to Catalan independence. But as often happens, as participants began to sink into the safety of this form of dialogue the emotions started to come forth. And given the level of emotion that this topic generates in many people in the region intense emotions were just below the calm venere and surfaced quickly. At times the dialogue was quite intense with 1 person or another speaking with considerable passion and concern. 

Those supporting independence spoke strongly of wanting openness and a change in the policies of the Spanish state, longing for more recognition, balance, reciprocity, and justice. They were seeing how much Catalonia contributes economically and in other ways for the benefit of Spain, but were not seeing a equal or even fair reciprocal benefit from Spain to Catalonia.  From their perspective they were not sensing or seeing any openness, let alone any interest, from the government in Madrid to be willing to open up these policies for potential change. Therefore the only feasible way forward for the maximal benefit of Catalan society from these participants perspective was to be independent from Spain. 

Many of these same participants expressed frustration and pain that their votes for independence (from the Oct 2017 referendum) were not seen, nor were taken into account by the government in Madrid in the way that they were wanting. They wanted their votes for independence to mean something, and they wanted to have their chance to vote in a referendum of self-determination to be respected and accepted. 

“This is so important to me.” 

On the other hand those in support of unity with Spain and its constitution spoke about the pain of going into regional government offices and seeing these government officials who, in theory at least, represent all people of Catalonia, wearing the yellow ribbons of the separatist movement. The pain was about not having a sense of belonging; and of not being accepted or represented by the officials whose job is to support all Catalonians. Those supporting the Spanish constitution suggested that if a true referendum was to happen about the independence of Catalonia, then it would need to include all of Spain because Catalan separation would have an enormous impact on all people in Spain. They really wanted clarity and transparency about the real advantages, disadvantages, and impacts that Catalan independence would have for everyone affected by such a move.  

One person supporting unity spoke strongly about first accepting the reality of Spain – it exists nationally/ internationally and is a respected member of the international community. An independent Catalonia would not automatically have that kind of respect and the privileges that go with it; and that independence, for example, may result in Catalonia losing all of the economic and other supports it receives as a member of the EU. He also spoke strongly of wanting acknowledgment and acceptance of the interdependence of Catalonia and Spain – yes, he acknowledged Catalonia contributes much to Spain, but he also strongly advocated for an acknowledgment of how much Spain has contributed to and acted to the benefit of Catalonia. He asked, “Will independence really give you more than you will lose?”

Making an important point

A few participants expressed feeling torn around this issue – they were leaning towards one direction or another but then some of the choices or actions of one group that were painful or disheartening led them to lean towards the other side. Interestingly towards the end of the two days of dialogue both groups, independently, but also inspired by the ‘other’ group, expressed their disappointment and upset with how the issue of independence was handled by both the government in Catalonia and the government in Madrid. The frustration with the Spanish government arresting political leaders of Catalonia; using police and police using force and beating people; and the use of the Constitutional Court to effectively end all dialogue, instead of relying on it. And the pain with the government in Barcelona for what was seen as an ‘illegal’ referendum on independence and their declaring independence when only 43% of the population had even voted; this was not a mandate for independence since it did not include enough of the population. There was also discomfort about the use of propaganda and the media. It was considered that, on the one hand the regional press and television promoted and even supported independence publicly; and, on the other, the Spanish press and television did not give a vision adjusted to the reality of everything that was happening in Catalonia.

All focused on the speaker

Some dialogue participants from both groups expressed concern around how increasingly polarized Catalan society was becoming, and expressed deep worry about some groups using the polarization to try to stop dialogue altogether. The participants saw this type of restorative dialogue as a way forward through the increasing polarization.  A few expressed their enormous sadness and pain regarding how the whole issue around independence has been handled. They were longing for more empathy and compassion – wishing all sides would be more open and interested in understanding the other side, treating each other with more respect and care.

As part of an agreed action plan most of the dialogue participants committed to having conversations with people from their various spheres of influence describing this dialogue and what they experienced and learned from participating, especially what they learned about the ‘other’ sides hopes and needs. Some agreed to share their experiences of the dialogue over social media; one agreed to explain their experience to a group of mediators, another to do the same with Political science students; three participants agreed to meet together to write an article about the Circle and the learning that has come from this experience. 

As the dialogue moved toward closing all of the participants from both sides called for similar dialogs to take place – they spoke about initially being quite afraid when approaching the time to talk, but then as a dialogue unfolded they began to understand each other and noticed how the fear faded. All of the dialogue participants expressed gratitude for the opportunity to dialogue in this way, and many were hopeful that this type of dialogue could help heal the breaks in the relationships that they were seeing in Catalan society.

After debriefing and closing with the dialogue participants we asked them if they would like to hear from the observers which they readily agree to. Dialog participants were then able to hear how powerfully their showing up in the dialogue authentically had inspired and touched the observers. The observers celebrated the participants strength, courage, and willingness to speak their truth yet also to have the humility to hear a different perspective – the observers were deeply moved by what they witnessed. Hearing this in turn brought up a lot of emotion, including tears, in many of the participants – they saw and experienced through the observers their own strength and the beauty of what they had shared with each other.

Dialogue participants hearing back from observers

From my perspective, I found it very powerful to see the change in the group from the beginning of the dialogue to the end of the dialogue. On the first day after introductory activities and initiation of the dialogue, the participants took thier first tea break in a small room together. As everyone had their tea and snacks the room was quiet, with most people standing alone or at most in groups of two or three. There was little or no talking and what talking there was was quite subdued. Contrast this to the last tea break on the last day of dialogue. In that same room everyone was standing in one large circle; the talking was very alive and animated and it was frequently punctuated with laughter. Similarly at the end of the dialogue when everyone was leaving for home, there was such warmth and affection in the room – participants were talking intimately, exchanging phone numbers and emails, planning meetings; it was like a group of old friends celebrating their time together and hoping for more in the future. 

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