25 March 2006

ETA walking a path first trod by the IRA

International Herald Tribune

By Caroline Brothers and Brian Lavery
International Herald Tribune

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usTime and again the Basque separatists who called their cease-fire in Spain this week identified with the Irish Republican Army and the eerie parallel between the two groups held up over nearly four decades, all the way to what seems to be their mutual oblivion.

Last year, Gerry Adams, the longtime leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, visited the Basque country to promote his book and to encourage ETA to negotiate for peace. It now seems plain that the peace deals that the IRA was negotiating were the omen of a similar course for ETA.

"When Gerry Adams came and talked about ending violence, it left ETA looking very much more alone," said Fernando Savater, the Spanish writer and philosopher who represents the citizens' movement, Ya Basta (Enough is Enough) and who has had bodyguards for years as a protection against the Basque separatists.

"ETA are not giving up arms because they want to, but out of necessity," Savater said. "ETA has been dismantled politically, legally, in a civic sense, and it has lost its bases in France."

The ETA cease-fire follows the Irish Republican Army's ending of its campaign of violence against Britain by just eight months.

Both fought for nearly four decades against modern democratic governments and each harked back to an ancient language and borders, rallying young people to join the cause against distant oppressors.

In the process they killed thousands - ETA about 850 and the IRA almost 1,800 - and caused monumental power struggles with national governments.

A critical difference is that the IRA thrived in a bitter sectarian divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics. ETA did not have that emotional issue of religion to stir up for support.

Most experts say that both groups were hurt by the Islamic fundamentalism of the new century, notably the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States and the train bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid in March 2004, when any residual support for the groups in the populace broke in an intolerance for terrorism.

After the bombings in Madrid, Savater said, "they lost a lot of their political audience."

However, Eoin O Broin, Sinn Fein's Belfast-based director of European affairs and the author of a book about Basque nationalism, took a different view, saying that the election of the Socialist prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, in 2004, days after the Madrid bombings, represented a chance to begin negotiating.

His predecessor "wasn't interested at all in any kind of dialogue," O Broin said. "Radical Basque nationalists recognized that with Zapatero, they had a major opportunity."

According to the newspaper El País, the Spanish Socialists met with ETA representatives in Geneva and Oslo last year to begin negotiations on the cease- fire.

The similarities between ETA and the IRA were both symbolic and political, analysts say.

"They formed an alliance as outcasts," according to Richard English, professor of politics at Queens University in Belfast. ETA's political wing, Batasuna, and Sinn Fein have at times both been forbidden from taking part in public discourse.

The similarities stretch to the niche languages that the movements promote as a badge of identity.

Nationalists in both regions have fostered dynamic youth movements, often by branding themselves as cool on college campuses, which have provided eager recruits for political - and occasionally terrorist - activities. And they each questioned the legitimacy of the constitutional democracies that control their regions, appealing to the belief that their supporters have been deprived of their rightful ancient homeland.

"Both groups tried to ride a tide of anti-imperialism," English said. Representatives from Basque parties regularly attended the annual conferences of Sinn Fein and addressed the audience.

Security analysts have suggested that those relationships extended to the sharing of weapons expertise and matériel, but in recent years Ireland's most significant export to San Sebastián, the political center of the Basque country in Spain, has been political expertise.

Paddy Woodworth, the author of a book about ETA titled "Dirty War, Clean Hands," says the example of the Irish peace process in the 1990s was crucial in ETA's call for a cease-fire in 1998.

Following the IRA carefully, ETA cannot be completely heartened by what follows after a call for peace. ETA will have learned from the recent IRA negotiations "that these processes can be slow, that they can be difficult and torturous at times," O Broin said.

Caroline Brothers reported from Paris and Brian Lavery from Dublin.

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