Matt Carthy (Birmingham, 1977) is an Irish MEP from the Sinn Féin party, part of the European United Left group. He entered the European chamber at the 2014 elections and is now in the final stretch of his first term, with the intention of returning. Carthy is a member of the EU-Catalonia Dialogue Platform and has repeatedly denounced the excesses of the Spanish government against Catalonia and the fact that Spain is holding political prisoners.
Sinn Fein, which leads Irish republicanism, is one of the two largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and currently the third-largest in Dublin's Dáil. The party also has a presence in the Westminster parliament, but has always refused to take possession of its seats, a step which would endorse British sovereignty over the island of Ireland as well as requiring MPs to swear allegiance to the British crown.
This is not normal and shouldn't be happening in a democratic and peaceful society. They are people who had enough support from voters to be elected to the Parliament of Catalonia and who are only in jail for organizing a mobilization in which people were able to express their views on the independence of Catalonia in a democratic way. It's a completely irregular scenario.
In fact, the only other cases that I can recall go back to Ireland in the '80s, specifically, in Northern Ireland. There, political prisoners conducted a hunger strike, during which they were elected to the British Parliament and a long time went by until the British government recognized that the way to tackle these matters was not by jailing people but engaging in dialogue and negotiation. I hope the Spanish government won't take long to learn this same lesson.
So do you think that the pro-independence prisoners are political prisoners?
Yes, for me, the Catalan prisoners are political prisoners because they are in prison for political reasons. Any objective observer could conclude that their imprisonment should be ended immediately. They're in prison for having made it possible for the people of Catalonia to express their will. It would be better if the Spanish government, instead of getting involved in this current judicial process, would talk with the elected representatives of the people of Catalonia to find a peaceful way out of this situation.
An increase in votes for the candidates that defend Catalonia's right to self-determination would send a very powerful message
Do you think that winning more seats in the European Parliament could make a difference in the international perception of the Catalan situation?
I believe that an increase in votes for the candidates and parties that defend Catalonia's right to self-determination would send a very powerful message. It would reflect the will of the Catalans and help to show internationally that we can't go on waiting while the situation in Catalonia continues to worsen.
Personally, however, I can't say if this would immediately result in a change of attitude from the leaders of the Spanish government or the European institutions, which have maintained a total silence on the situation in Catalonia. Either way, a good result in the European elections for the parties defending democracy, human rights and peaceful mechanisms to deal with political disagreements would force the leaders of the European Union to respond.
It is impossible for the prisoners to receive a fair trial
Right now, the trial resulting from the October 1st 2017 referendum is underway. You visited the prisoners before it began and will be acting as an international observer in the Supreme Court. What do you think about this judicial process?
These people are honourable representatives of the people of Catalonia. They're not prisoners, they're not criminals. They have simply been jailed for having followed a democratic mandate passed by Parliament with sufficient support, and holding the referendum based on that mandate. On the 1st October, although there was an attempted to prevent it through violence, Catalans voted and they achieved a clear result that showed their will. The reasons for which [the leaders] have been jailed and put on trial lead any person with a neutral view to the conclusion that it is impossible for them to receive a fair trial. The charges they face are so absurd... This process must be stopped, the prisoners must be released and negotiation between representatives of the Catalan and Spanish governments must be established.
With all that we have seen in the trial so far, d'you think there is any basis for the charges of sedition and rebellion?
Absolutely not. What is happening is incredibly detrimental not only for democracy but also for the European institutions. We have been very clear in the European Union: if this were happening in South America, in the Middle East or in an Asian country, the EU would strongly condemn the presence of people being put into prison simply for allowing citizens to vote. But it's happening in the EU itself and the silence of its leaders makes them accomplices to the situation.
The EU has lost a lot of credibility with this reaction to the Catalan crisis
In fact, in Catalonia, the independence movement has spent a long time waiting for an intervention from Europe that has never come. What do you think could make the EU react?
There are two different answers from Europe. One is that of the people. I think that in Europe, many people were upset by the actions of the Spanish government on the day of the referendum, when they tried to stop it using violence and, later, when they rejected the result and imprisoned people for allowing it. I think that ordinary people from all over Europe felt very upset about these actions and were shocked that nobody intervened.
And the Europe of the institutions?
Unfortunately, the response of the EU leaders did not reflect the reaction of their citizens. The leaders' response has been to remain silent, to pretend that nothing is happening and that this is not a serious violation of all the standards of peace, democracy and human rights which the EU wants to be identified with. I believe that the EU has lost a lot of credibility with this reaction to the Catalan crisis. I hope that, over time, the EU leaders, as a result of the response of European citizens and the undemocratic action of the Spanish government, will realize that they can't continue to remain silent while these injustices and this farcical trial carry on. I hope that they'll be forced to respond more proactively and to defend peace, democracy and human rights.
What Spain calls a 'fair trial' is not something normal in most of Europe
Since Puigdemont and part of his government went into exile, there have been attempts by the Spanish courts to extradite them but, in the face of the impossibility of doing so on charges of rebellion and sedition, they withdrew the arrest warrants. What does this say about Spanish justice?
It's a very clear signal that the judicial process that's being carried out isn't normal and isn't acceptable for most judicial systems. In other states, it is understood as a political process and not as a judicial issue, and for that reason the exiles haven't been arrested or any action taken against them. This situation shows that what Spain calls a 'fair trial' is not something normal in most of Europe.
The Catalan independence process has taken place with two different parties at the helm of the Spanish government, the right-wing Popular Party and the Socialist PSOE. What do you think about their management of this conflict?
Both have played their part in damaging Spain's reputation in Europe and the world. The actions of their politicians are hurting the reputation of the country at international level because anyone can see that this [at present] isn't a political or democratic exercise and that what is needed is negotiation and dialogue. So I think that the actions of the Spanish governments are doing a disservice to their own people and also to the Catalans, denying them the right to decide their own future.
The actions of Spanish politicians are hurting the reputation of the country at international level
You made a strong speech in defence of the freedom of the prisoners in the European Parliament. What response did you receive from the leaders of the Parliament?
Unfortunately, from the leaders of the European Parliament, the response I received was silence. They refuse to talk about this question, making out that nothing is happening. Part of this attitude is due to the fact that the Spanish parties that have governed, the PP and the PSOE, are part of the largest groups in the European Parliament. If these parties were in smaller political groups, perhaps there would be a stronger response at European level.
And what did other MEPs say?
After my address, many MEPs from all political groups told me that they supported what I'd said but that, being members of the groups which the Spanish parties belong to, they weren't prepared to defend it publicly. That is regrettable, but I hope that over time they will make their voices heard in defence of peace and human rights.
In February, the European chamber banned a conference by Catalan leaders Puigdemont and Torra, but, shortly afterwards, it allowed one in which the far-right Vox party took part. Do you think that was a double standard from the parliament?
Yes, I do. The excuse for cancelling the Catalan event was very dubious and the argument that it could have affected security was absurd. I think it was a political move, because other groups with very dubious political positions have entered the European Parliament's facilities. The actions of the leaders of the European parliament were shameful and disappointing. I don't know how they could have justified it. But, for those who were aware, it was a clear case of political interference in a democratic process. And I hope it won't happen again.
The situation will only become unblocked when international pressure is exerted on Spain and that is the role that the EU must play
Finally, what future do you see in the conflict between Catalonia and Spain?
Historically, it's known that in conflicts like these, at some point, people sit down and begin a dialogue or negotiation. I would ask the Spanish government to prevent relationships from being poisoned before that time arrives. The Spanish executive should commit itself to a political dialogue and release the prisoners. As for the European leaders, I urge them to facilitate and encourage these talks as soon as possible.
Do you think this moment of dialogue could come soon?
It needs political will from the Spanish authorities. The Catalan political representatives have been very clear in stating that they want dialogue, while the Spanish government hasn't been. Therefore, it is in the hands of the State. In spite of that, I think that the situation will only become unblocked when international pressure is exerted on Spain and that is the role that the EU must play.