The referendum on independence for Catalonia in 2017 tore apart Catalan society as secessionist leaders trampled on constitutional norms and dispensed with standards of consent imperative in a modern democracy. Nine ringleaders of the failed unilateral breakaway attempt were arrested and convicted of sedition by the supreme court. They were sentenced to prison terms of between nine and 13 years. The harsh punishment was in line with Spain’s criminal code and went some way to meeting the thirst of many Spaniards for retribution against those who sought to dismember their country. But it has done nothing to heal the wounds in a divided Catalonia or to help Spain find an accommodation with a region with a strong sense of its own political and cultural identity. It has made both of those objectives harder to achieve.

So the decision by Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez on Monday to offer a partial pardon to the nine jailed separatist leaders is a commendable attempt to try to open a route to reconciliation and coexistence within Catalonia and between the north-eastern region and the rest of Spain. It is also a bold move by Sánchez. The rightwing opposition parties are staunchly opposed as are the judiciary and even some grandees from the governing Socialist party. An opinion poll suggested 61 per cent of Spaniards are against the reprieve. It will almost certainly be challenged in the courts.

The prime minister presented the partial pardon not as a concession to the nine jailed secessionists leaders but to the millions of Catalans they represent. He is not offering a full amnesty but a commutation of the secessionists’ prison sentences. Their convictions will stand. They will remain barred from holding public office. Their reprieve will be reversed if they commit another serious offence.

Sánchez’s critics complain that his pardon is driven by partisan interests since his minority government needs the support of the ERC, the more moderate of Catalonia’s separatist parties which heads the regional government, in the Spanish parliament.

They also say, with some justification, that the nine Catalan leaders have shown no remorse. Sánchez himself previously said they should serve their full terms. But there have been conciliatory signals. Oriol Junqueras, the jailed head of the ERC, said earlier this month another unilateral independence push would be “neither viable nor desirable”.

The prime minister said he was not counting on persuading Catalans to drop their independence ambitions but he wanted them to understand they were unachievable outside the law. His ultimate goal is to negotiate a new statute of enhanced autonomy for the region that would help defuse or marginalise secessionist sentiment. His gambit may well fail. The initial reaction from Pere Aragonès, the Catalan regional premier from the ERC party, was that a pardon was not enough. If Catalonia is to find a way out of political paralysis and social tension, it will need leaders like Aragonès to show leadership, not be cowed by hardline separatists, and engage with the central government in Madrid.

Spain’s opposition People’s party condemned the pardons, accusing Sánchez of trying to dismantle the state. But it has no solutions to offer to a crisis that has polarised Spanish politics and every interest in stirring up Spanish nationalist resentment. Some allies of the PP in business and the church, on the other hand, see the pardons as an opening for dialogue and negotiation. It may not work, but Sánchez is right to try.