26 March 2006

The Irish links are strong in ending Basque conflict

Boston Globe

Peace talks bring a cease-fire in 38-year struggle

By Kevin Cullen
March 26, 2006

Last week, as the Basque separatist group ETA prepared to make a videotape announcing an unconditional cease-fire, a stoic Irishman named Seanna Walsh was in the background, quietly offering encouragement and reassurance.

Walsh, a legendary figure in the Irish Republican Army, made a similar video statement last July in Belfast, declaring that after 35 years, the IRA had ended its violent campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland. Walsh's presence in Spain's Basque country on Wednesday when ETA announced what it called a permanent end to its 38-year armed struggle to create an independent Basque nation was little known, but not surprising.

There are longstanding links between Irish republicans and Basque separatists, who defended each other's struggle as legitimate wars of self-determination against colonial powers and rejected suggestions that they were terrorists who had no popular mandate. In the 1970s and '80s, the IRA and ETA traded not just mutual expressions of revolutionary solidarity, but also training tips and tactics. The car bombs that rocked the Spanish cities of Bilbao and Barcelona were perfected in Belfast.

But since 1994, when the IRA called a cease-fire that transformed the Irish republican movement from one driven by its military wing to one driven by its political wing, Irish republicans have been encouraging their Basque friends to follow a similar path. According to some analysts, the relative success of the peace process in Ireland has been the most significant outside influence on ending a dispute over a region that straddles Spain and France. ETA, a group whose name means Basque Homeland and Liberty in the Basque language, has been blamed for the deaths of more than 800 people since 1968.

In recent years, the Irish influence in ending the Basque conflict went beyond the IRA and its political wing, Sinn Fein. Over the past four years, the Rev. Alec Reid, a Belfast-based Roman Catholic priest who helped persuade the IRA to pursue a united Ireland through strictly political means, and who last year was an official witness to the destruction of the IRA's hidden arsenal, was deeply involved in negotiations to persuade Basque separatists to end their violent campaign.

Four months ago, during a conversation in Dublin, a senior IRA figure recalled that Reid's frequent visits to Basque country made it difficult to coordinate a time when Reid and a Protestant clergymen could witness the decommissioning of IRA weaponry.

Alex Maskey, a Sinn Fein official who traveled to Spain to advise the Basque separatists, compared the work he and others did to the mentoring his party received from South African politicians during the negotiations that led up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which more or less ended the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland.

''In any conflict resolution process, it's important to hear from others who have been through it, especially when you get to a sticking point," Maskey said Friday in a telephone interview from Belfast, where he is a city councilor. ''The South Africans helped us, and we helped the Basques. In the Basque country, we told them that if you can get a process, there may not be a guaranteed outcome, but you can make progress."

Some of Sinn Fein's most prominent members -- including party president Gerry Adams and chief negotiator Martin McGuinness, a former IRA chief of staff -- visited Basque separatist leaders and played host to them in Northern Ireland. But it was a lesser-known Sinn Fein strategist, Pat Rice, who spent the most time shuttling between Belfast and Bilbao promoting the idea that what worked for Irish nationalists could work for Basque nationalists.

Over the past decade, officials from Batasuna, ETA's political wing, attended Sinn Fein's annual conference, watching a party once marginalized as apologists for terrorists rise fast in a post-conflict society, becoming the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and even a potential power-broker in the Irish Republic.

In 1998, inspired by the remarkable transformation in Northern Ireland, ETA called a cease-fire, and Arnaldo Otegi, the charismatic Batasuna leader, was widely referred to as ''the Basque Gerry Adams." But ETA called off its cease-fire in 1999, asserting that the conservative government led by José Maria Aznar was not serious about a settlement.

ETA's response was similar to that of the IRA in 1996, when it broke a cease-fire, saying the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major was not serious about negotiations. But the IRA restored its cease-fire in 1997, after Blair's Labor Party swept to victory in the British general election, and Blair promised to convene all-party talks to resolve Northern Ireland's conflict.

Maskey said a similar opportunity arose in Spain two years ago, when Aznar's party was driven from power by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's Socialists. Ironically, it was the Aznar government's efforts to blame ETA for the 2004 bombings carried out by Islamic extremists in Madrid that tilted a close vote toward Zapatero's party, analysts say. The revulsion created by those attacks, and a crackdown on ETA by Spanish and French authorities, seemed to convince ETA the days of using violence to gain political advantage were over: ETA has not killed anyone over the past two years.

ETA said that as of Friday it was on ''permanent cease-fire." Using such unambiguous language, ETA will be under pressure to disarm, something the IRA didn't do for more than 11 years after it called a more ambiguous cease-fire. Still, the nascent stage of the Basque peace process was underscored by the fact that the three ETA leaders who appeared Wednesday were masked. When Seanna Walsh spoke for the IRA last July, he did not hide his face.

''Seanna being there, the symbolism is appropriate," Maskey said. ''I would like to think . . . you would have people being able to represent Basque interests without wearing hoods."

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