In the mid-1990s, Ramon Viñals i Soler, a businessman and politician from Barcelona, was charged with the task of reviving masonry in the Balearics. Twenty years on from the death of Franco, masonry was still very much in the doldrums on the islands, and this despite the fact that it had briefly thrived in the years leading up to the Civil War. Whether it can be said that Viñals was successful is open to question. In March 2010, Mallorca was turned into the capital of Spanish masonry. The Grand Lodge of Spain made the Hotel Meliá Victoria in Palma its centre for the gathering to elect the new Grand Master; there was also voting in other parts of Spain. Some 300 votes were cast at the hotel, of which 253 were by members from the Balearics, which was a healthy proportion of the total number of masons - 400. However, fifteen years on from the start of the revival campaign, the number didn't really appear to have represented a great success.
At this year's assembly of the Grand Lodge in Madrid, Oscar de Alfonso Ortega was re-elected as Grand Master. He had one opponent: Ramon Viñals i Soler. 592 votes were cast. Alfonso secured 92% of the vote, an overwhelming majority which might have seemed odd.
Alfonso had been a surprise winner in 2010, dislodging (so to speak) the "official" candidate, José Carretero. It was said that his victory owed a great deal to support from British masons, of whom it was reckoned that they comprised roughly 50% of the voters. By the time of this year's vote, however, Alfonso's British support was believed to be in decline, while he had also lost favour among Spanish masons. This was because a Jesuit scholar had been invited to a masonic meeting and had been given an award by Alfonso; the Jesuits had once been to the fore in the persecution of masons. Alfonso had also publicly defended a drug-dealer who had been on a British list of the top ten most most-wanted criminals. Yet, when it came to the election, he came romping home.
So, how might this victory be explained? Viñals was and is, after all, a veteran mason, but his politics and his associations might well have let him down. His political career has been defined by his socialism and his republicanism. He is a supporter of Catalonian independence, but his interests stretch beyond Spain. To the Sudan, for instance. He has been a "goodwill ambassador" in Europe for Omar al-Bashir, the president of the Sudan, for whom there is an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.
Whatever the reasons for Alfonso's stunning re-election, it would seem that the upper echelons of the Grand Lodge have been tainted with controversy in the recent past, and, perhaps as a sign of a fierce rejection of Viñals, Alfonso's re-election led to a strong statement of loyalty to the King, the Crown and the Constitution being issued. Yet, despite Viñals' republican views, this political affiliation was responsible for what was the only short era when masonry assumed a position of some importance in the Balearics and in Spain.
The origins of the islands' masonry can be found in Menorca, the consequence of British influence on the island. As a movement it first surfaced in the 1830s, came to Mallorca briefly, disappeared, returned, entered a period of crisis in the late nineteenth century when it all but disappeared again, only for it to resurface during the Second Republic of the five years before the Civil War: over 80% of Republican deputies at the Cortes parliament were masons.
On 15 September 1936, so only weeks after the start of the war, freemasonry "and other clandestine activities" were declared illegal by Franco's Nationalist rebels. By 1938 there was a "Special Tribunal for the Repression of Masonry and Communism". With their deeply conservative Catholicism, the Nationalists and the Falange took their lead from the Church, which had been railing against masonry for decades. How many masons were executed or murdered is impossible to say. A list of 80,000 so-called masons was drawn up by Father Tusquets, the mason-witchfinder-general. There were in truth only around 5.000 masons in Spain at the time.
The regime left its legacy, and masonry remained dormant until Viñals sought to revive it. The number of masons in the Balearics may be low, but then there are reckoned to be fewer than 7,000 masons in Spain as a whole; England is said to have a quarter of a million. But maybe its popularity will grow. The Grand Lodge doesn't admit women, but the Symbolic Grand Lodge does; the Sapere Aude ("dare to know") lodge was established in Palma in February. Traditions hold though. Even Viñals, a more liberal mason, is against women joining the Grand Lodge.