How the town which gave refuge to Welsh anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War elected a far-right mayor
For most of the 183 Welsh men and women who volunteered to fight Franco in the Spanish Civil War, the last piece of Republican soil they set foot on before travelling home was Ripoll in north west Catalonia.
It was to this small town at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains, which volunteers had clandestinely crossed by foot in the black of night only a year earlier, that the international brigades retreated after the Republic’s decisive loss at the Battle of the Ebre.
After surviving the bombardments by fascist air and artillery forces aided by the firepower of the German and Italian military, Welsh volunteer Edwin Greening remembered how they then faced months billeted in the “freezing discomfort” of the town theatre.
One of the few diversions from the conditions were the political talks at the town’s historic monastery.
Although it had a population of just 12,000 at the time, Ripoll is known as the “cradle of Catalonia” thanks to the monastery established there in 880 by Guifré el Pelós (Wilfred the Hairy), the country’s founding father who has been likened to a local King Arthur.
The winter of 1938 otherwise passed “slowly and coldly” for the volunteers, who tried to maintain discipline with daily parades in the town square in exchange for their meagre lunch rations.
They at least received a warm send-off from the people of the town when they left in December 1938, departing from the train station “with the music of the Internationale from a military band and with cheers from a big crowd of the people of Ripoll,” as Greening recalled in his memoirs, From Aberdare to Albacete.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees followed in the footsteps of the international brigades months later on their way to France to escape Franco’s retribution and his 40 year fascist dictatorship which followed.
It’s difficult then to imagine this last bastion of the Spanish Republic ever falling into the hands of the far-right.
Indeed, far-right Vox polled just 6% in the recent general election as the voters of Ripoll, as in the rest of Catalonia, overwhelmingly backed the socialist party of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
Vox didn’t even field candidates in the town in May’s local elections. Instead, a uniquely Catalan manifestation of the far-right took control of the local council.
The Aliança Catalana, which has borrowed the branding of the British Conservative party, is as hard line on immigration as it is on independence.
Its programme promises to use council data to find undocumented migrants and hand them over to the Spanish police for extradition at the same time as accusing mainstream pro-independence parties of “liquidating” the country for taking part in dialogue with the Spanish state.
Contradictions don’t trouble the Aliança’s populist leader, Silvia Orriols.
Trump-style rhetoric has helped Orriols amass more than 37,000 followers – more than any Welsh party leader other than First Minister Mark Drakeford.
And, far from toning down her rhetoric down since becoming mayor, Orriols has taken the opportunity to spread her message through official channels.
The council’s Twitter account, in between photos of children attending a summer club and an update on a new bridge, posted a photo showing a person sleeping outside underneath a blanket and announced it had handed a man of Moroccan origin to the police for extradition.
“Obviously leaving aside the ideology, she’s an excellent communicator,” said Dr Andrew Dowling of Cardiff University of Ripoll’s far-right mayor.
“Since she has been elected her media performances have been really high quality. So she’s pulling in a lot of attention for a certain narrative.”
A “fanatical catholic” who has a “deeply held and a genuine anti-Muslim belief”, Orriols is fighting a “religious war” as much as a political battle, Dr Dowling believes.
Her views were even unpalatable to another far-right party, the National Front of Catalonia, for whom she was first elected as a councillor in 2019 before breaking away to form the Aliança Catalana.
But she won round a certain section of Ripoll’s population by playing on another violent tragedy in Catalonia’s history.
On August 17, 2017, seventeen people were killed and 136 others injured in two terror attacks carried out by a group of young men from Ripoll who were radicalised by an extremist hate preacher at a local mosque, Abdelbaki Es Satty.
“Everything changed as a result of the attacks,” Badar, a Ripoll resident of Moroccan origin told the Diari Ara newspaper. “Since then, people look at us badly, although we have done nothing.”
That atmosphere helped Orriols become the sole far-right representative on Ripoll’s council in 2019,
before she formed the breakaway Aliança Catalana which won six seats in this year’s elections.
That was four short of a majority but a failure to find an alternative coalition because of growing rancour between the country’s two mainstream pro-independence forces allowed Orriols to take power.
Amid protests by anti-racist campaigners in the town, opposition parties promised to remove her through a motion of no confidence but, months later, she remains in post.
“You’ve got a series of elements that come together,” said Dr Dowling, the author of Catalonia: A New History.
“Silvia Orriols is a very canny operator and she’s very good at tapping into certain feelings that aren’t necessarily coherent.”
“In my view this sort of nativist discourse has always been around,” he added. “But it has always been subordinated to traditional Catalan nationalism, [which] frames itself in a progressive way because it says: Spain is right-wing, Spain is Francoism, Spain is intolerant – therefore, we are open and tolerant.”
Some nationalists began to break away from that narrative in the wake of the 2017 independence referendum, when voting took place despite brutal attempts to close down polling stations by Spanish police and a subsequent legal crackdown against independence leaders saw seven go into exile and another nine imprisoned.
“One of the important things that has happened since 2017 is the fragmentation of the independence space,” said Dowling. “There is a more belligerent independence narrative that has adopted populist tenants.
“There’s a narrative that our leaders betrayed us. The people were ready for independence and it was the political class that sold us down the river. You keep seeing these attempts to create new political formations.”
One of them, the Aliança Catalana, now has its headquarters just a hundred metres from the theatre which Edwin Greening and his comrades once called home.
Greening remembered Ripoll as a “centre of militant trade unionism and left-wing parties”.
Recent events serve as a reminder that history and tradition alone are not enough to prevent the rise of the far-right.
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