25 March 2006

Priest hails Basque party for ceasefire

Scotsman

By Elisabeth O'Leary and Teresa Larraz
24-Mar-06 22:08 GMT

BILBAO, Spain (Reuters) - Batasuna, the outlawed Basque political party, deserves credit for its role in the process which led to this week's ETA ceasefire, an Irish priest involved in the talks said on Friday.

Father Alec Reid, a Roman Catholic priest who has been heavily involved in the Northern Irish peace process, said Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero should recognise Batasuna's contribution.

"That party deserves credit from Zapatero because they opened it up," Reid told Reuters in an interview in the Basque city of Bilbao. "There are some great leaders on the left wing (of Basque politics)."

Speaking on the first day of the ceasefire, called by guerrilla group ETA after 38 years of violence, Reid said he had been coming to the Basque Country regularly for four years to try to help bring about peace.

The 74-year-old, who recently acted as a witness to the decommissioning of Irish republican weapons, said members of Batasuna told him as long ago as 2003 that they were "prepared to trust the dynamics of dialogue".

That was a big step forward for Batasuna, which is widely viewed as the political wing of ETA, has been banned by Spain since 2002 and is labelled a terrorist organisation by the European Union.

Among the Batasuna figures praised by Reid was party leader Arnaldo Otegi, who is due to appear in court next Wednesday and is likely to be jailed for breaking bail terms.

The Spanish government has said Otegi will not be treated any more leniently in the light of ETA's ceasefire.

"I'M RIGHT, YOU'RE WRONG"

Reid acknowledged he found it difficult to bring people together from across the political spectrum in Spain.

"ETA isn't the problem," he said. "The problem is you don't have a culture of dialogue and therefore of democracy. For them (Spaniards), dialogue is me trying to persuade you that I'm right."

But he said he was confident the right-wing Popular Party (PP), which has demanded further concessions from ETA as a prerequisite for peace talks, would eventually be persuaded to join other political parties at the negotiating table.

"I believe the PP will be there and at the end of the day they'll be the best peacemakers at the table, even though now they seem to be trying to wreck everything," he said.

Reid also said he wanted to get more women involved in the peace process in both Northern Ireland and the Basque Country.

In Ireland, former Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, former Irish president Mary Robinson and her successor Mary McAleese have all been credited with helping take some of the machismo out of the province's politics.

"The most powerful dynamic after the grace of God is the dynamic produced by the male and female together," Reid said.

"They compliment one another."

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