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Five secessionist movements to watch in 2018

30 October 2017

From Catalonia to New Caledonia via Iraqi Kurdistan: where are questions of statehood emerging? Dr Ryan Griffiths, an expert in secession and sovereignty, pinpoints some would-be nations of the near future. 

The view from Calton Hill in central Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Unsplash/Adam Wilson

The view from Calton Hill in central Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Unsplash/Adam Wilson


“In many ways, Scotland is the envy of other secessionist movements because it was permitted a binding referendum on independence. When the Scottish nationalists lost the vote in 2014, it seemed that the dream of an independent Scotland was dashed for a generation,” says Dr Ryan Griffiths, whose research explore the dynamics of secession.

“Yet the Scottish National Party (SNP) surged in the 2015 UK general election and now dominates Scottish politics. And then Brexit happened. A majority of Scots voted to stay in the EU, contra the English vote.

“Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, highlighted that fact in the immediate aftermath of the vote and stated that Scotland would now have to revisit its relationship with the UK. The independence effort is currently on standby as the UK negotiates Brexit, but more is sure to come.” 


There is a family resemblance between the Catalan and Scottish secessionist movements, explains Dr Griffiths.

“Both are highly institutionalised efforts taking place in advanced democracies, both have sworn to seek their ends through peaceful means, and both struggle to convince the majority that independence is the right choice. But there is a key difference, as the Catalans like to point out: Spain won’t negotiate,” says Dr Griffiths.

“As a result, the Independistas have adopted tactics designed to force Spain to respond. The result has been increased tension, a controversial referendum that led to violence, and a declaration of independence.

“With Spain’s recent imposition of direct rule, it is changing its strategy from ignoring the movement to squashing it. Where secession is concerned, Catalonia will likely dominate the headlines for some time.”

Iraqi Kurdistan

Unlike the Scots and the Catalans, Dr Griffiths says the Kurds exist in a struggling state in a war-torn region.

He says: “The prospect of their independence alarms Turkey and Iran, two neighbours with their own Kurdish minorities. However, the war against the Islamic State made the Kurds and their army, the Peshmerga, a valuable ally in the region.

“This led many Kurds, including their then leader, Mahmoud Barzani, to reckon that it was time to push for independence while they still had leverage. The result of the referendum on independence on September 25 was a 93 percent yes vote, a denunciation by Turkey and Iran, and conflict in Kirkuk when the Iraqi army seized control from the Kurds. Barzani has announced he will step down and we’ll find out in the months to come whether his gamble was a miscalculation.”

New Caledonia

“The Kanak secessionists of New Caledonia lack the media attention of the Scots, Catalans, and Kurds. Perhaps France would like to keep it that way. Yet, the French overseas territory in the South Pacific is scheduled to hold a referendum on independence in 2018,” says Dr Griffiths.

“New Caledonia remains on the United Nations’ List of Non-Self-Governing Territories, the remnant of colonies that are still included under the ambit of decolonisation. One of the issues that make New Caledonia so controversial is that the indigenous Kanak people are a minority on the island that is dominated by French settlers and their descendants. What should take precedence: the will of the majority or decolonisation and the weight of history? We may find out next year.”


Dr Griffiths also highlights Bougainville, an autonomous region in Papua New Guinea (PNG) that fought a bloody secessionist civil war in the 1990s that claimed up to 20,000 lives.

“This is the least known of the five secessionist movements to watch next year, yet it is most likely to become the next sovereign state,” he says.

“A peace agreement in 2001 gave Bougainville greater autonomy and the promise of a referendum on independence between 2015 and 2020. That referendum will be held in the next few years, and the population of the island is overwhelmingly in support of independence. Once held, it will be up to PNG to respond. A rejection of the outcome could restart the conflict. It is doubtful that PNG has the stomach for that.” 

Luke O'Neill

Media and Public Relations Adviser (Humanities and Social Sciences)

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