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I spent the pre-dawn hours of Sunday morning driving around Barcelona; bouncing from polling station to polling station talking to excited, determined, anxious and wet Catalans.

In the pouring rain they had gathered at schools and other public buildings across this disputed region of Spain.

For a proportion of the 7.5 million people of Catalonia, this was their moment.

There had been referenda before, but they were just temperature tests; signals to the central government of the sentiment, but not binding.

This was different.

The regional coalition government – populated by a broad spectrum of politicians from centre-right to far-left and voted in with less than 50% of the popular vote in the last regional elections – pledged a binding referendum and passed a formal bill authorising it.

For the first time, Catalans who wanted a say were being given their chance: formally, democratically and – in the regional government’s view – legally too.

:: Catalonia referendum: The fight for independence explained

Sky News' Mark Stone with one of the projectiles fired at voters by police Video: Crowds scatter as rubber balls fired by police

But in Madrid, the centre-right government of Mariano Rajoy saw it as an illegal insurgency to split up an “indissoluble” nation state: Spain.

Constitutionally they were right. Spain’s highest court ruled the vote illegal.

“They’re calling you ‘insurgents’,” I said to a middle-aged man, dripping, outside one school.

“Yes, and I am proud of that,” he replied.

“If a law is wrong, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is also obliged to do so,” he added, quoting something attributed – with some doubt – to Thomas Jefferson.

On reflection, given the history of resentment, the opportunity the referendum presented and the immovable positions of both sides, it was always likely to be difficult.

Still, there is something deeply chilling about what unfolded.

The ballot boxes were brought into polling stations on Sunday morning

Image: The vote fell well short of any international election standard

Put the politics aside; leave the vital and consequential issues of legality and legitimacy of the vote for another conversation and absorb what happened.

On the orders of a European Union government, riot police brutally suppressed thousands of people who were attempting peacefully to express their will in a democratic process.

I saw them stamp on voters, beat them with batons, fire rubber bullets at them.

It was brutal, and against a peaceful movement.

The Madrid government claims the vote was a sham. They say they were protecting a greater democracy by trying to stop it.

“Democracy is not above the rule of law, democracy is guaranteed by the rule of law,” Spain’s foreign minister, Alfonso Dastis, told us on Saturday.

preview image Video: Spain’s foreign minister questioned on violence

As the violence continued on Sunday night, I interviewed him again.

He was sitting in his office in Madrid and seemed unaware or in denial about what had unfolded in Catalonia.

“I am not sure I have seen the same pictures that you seem to have seen,” he said.

“Our position is that if there has been any violence at all we have tried for it to be proportional and, in any case, trying to discharge what the courts asked the police to do, which is to prevent the referendum from taking place.”

He suggested that fake news had played a part. A low, weak retort which made him look foolish.

“If they [the police] tried to disrupt the voting, that is because that vote was not supposed to take place,” Mr Dastis added.

“And it was only because of the insistence of the government of Catalonia to simply, you know, disregard the law and act against the rules that guarantees our democracy that these things are taking place.”

So what happens now?

International monitors invited by the Catalan government to monitor the process were shocked by what they saw.

One of them, Knesia Svetliva, from Israel, was next to me as the police fired their rubber bullets.

She said she’d seen that sort of thing in the Middle East. “But in the EU?!” she said.

Their feedback will naturally focus on the police aggression.

But they’ll report back on the electoral process too.

Given the national government’s desire to stop the vote, there was significant disruption to the process (in the weeks preceding too).

There was no electoral commission overseeing the poll and changes were made to the process by the Catalan government at the last minute.

The polling stations were manned by supporters of the secession process and not independent staff.

The ballots, which could be printed out at home, were counted by pro-referendum groups.

Inevitably it fell well short of any international election standard. But the symbolic victory still lies with the Catalan government.

Violence flares in Barcelona over the banned Catalan vote

Image: Violence flared in Barcelona over the banned referendum

By late Sunday night, with votes counted, the local authorities said that out of the 2,262,424 ballots that were not seized, 2,020,144 were “Yes” votes, 176,566 were “No” votes, 45,586 were blank and 20,129 were null votes.

About 5.4 million were eligible to vote, so on just over 40% turnout, 89% had voted “Yes”.

Many of those who didn’t vote chose not to because they don’t believe in independence, and didn’t want to give the referendum legitimacy.

This is a divided place.

With all that in mind, I asked Mr Dastis, what happens now?

“We’ll see. Let’s wait and see,” he said.

A woman is grabbed by riot police near a a polling station

Image: Many were injured in the clashes

The Catalan government said before the referendum that it would declare independence within 48 hours of a “Yes” vote, regardless of the turnout.

That gives Mr Rajoy few options. He is being urged to negotiate. But on national TV on Sunday night he didn’t sound in the mood for that.

He blamed the chaos on the irresponsibility of the Catalan government.

At the heart of his motivation is holding Spain together.

Why, he asks, should a small part of greater Spain be allowed, unilaterally, to break away? He knows that the majority of people across Spain agree with him.

But he also feels the pressure of nationalist movements across the country, who will feel emboldened both by Catalonia’s “audacity” to hold the vote and by the national government’s violent response.

He’ll see the response from across the EU as tacit support for his motives (if not for his police’s actions).

The EU functions on the idea that nation states remain together – if anything with more federalism not less.

But there are plenty of separatist movements across the bloc who will watch Catalonia closely. By midnight on Sunday there had been not a single word from the European Commission, the European Council (representing the EU member states).

Spanish police use batons against protesters in Tarragona Video: Applause as Spain minister quizzed on violence

Britain, which must tread carefully now in any criticism of any EU country given the deal the Government is looking for over Brexit, issued an overtly supportive message for Mr Rajoy.

“The referendum is a matter for the Spanish government and people,” a Foreign Office spokeswoman said.

“We want to see Spanish law and the Spanish constitution respected and the rule of law upheld.

“Spain is a close ally and a good friend, whose strength and unity matters to us.”

Mr Rajoy claimed on Sunday night the police had performed their duty in Catalonia and that “democracy won today because the Constitution was upheld”.

We watched him speaking on the TV from a cafe where we were editing together our evening news report.

It was compiled of the images from the day: police beating voters, firing rubber bullets at them, pushing them to the ground, stamping on them; men, women, young and old.

Deeply unsettling.

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