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The Basque Blood Feud




May 23, 2001

LONDON - Like its counterpart, the Northern Ireland conflict, the continuation of Basque nationalist terrorism seems too polarised, too fuelled by historical sentimentality and myth on one side and by narrow-minded authoritarianism on the other, for easy settlement. But Northern Ireland has found a peace of sorts and the lion is lying down with the lamb and even sitting side by side in the same cabinet room in Stormont castle in Belfast. Yet Basque militancy, in the form of the guerrilla army of ETA, continues its ferocious policy of assassination and intimidation, out of step not only with the rest of western Europe, not just with the majority mood of the rest of the country, but also with the majority mood of the Basque country itself.

This is the clear reading of last week's regional elections in the Basque country. The radical leftist party, Euskal Herritarrok, widely considered to be the political wing of ETA and one that is clearly associated with the necessity for violence in pursuit of the aim of winning independence from Spain, had its vote share cut in half. Yet if violence was repudiated, it wasn't defeated and neither was the common cause of at least half the citizens of this beleaguered but prosperous region. The joint efforts of Spain's two predominant national parties- the Popular Party of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and the opposition Socialist party - failed to win a clear mandate against independence, winning only 41% of the vote between them. The clear winner was the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) with 42% of the vote. While the party eschews violence, it has adopted the ETA goal of a breakaway from Spain.

The region is almost the antithesis of Northern Ireland. Whilst Northern Ireland is depressed economically and divided by ancient religious hatreds, the Basque people share the same religion, have already won a great degree of autonomy, including control of their own police force, are now in the heart of one of the more bustling parts of Europe with nothing less than an art museum, the Guggenheim, triggering the urban renewal of its largest city, Bilbao and, not least, confront no paramilitaries on the opposite side prepared to outgun them and out torture them at every turn. In the simple light of day there is no contest. Northern Ireland should be the difficult one and the Basque problem should have been blown away long ago with the winds of post Francoist democratic change and the withering away of the hard edges of European frontiers, as Spain became one of the more enthusiastic supporters of the Euro currency and European federalism.

It has not happened, and shows little signs of happening, despite the repudiation at the poll of the pro ETA party. ETA will not fade way. Its appeal even to middle-class young recruits remains strong. This is why Juan Jose Ibarretxe, the leader of the PNV, says the central government has to re-engage in dialogue with Basque nationalism. But the prime minister remains adamant. "Dialogue to achieve what?" Mr Aznar asked last week. "I have nothing to say on the question of self-determination".

Yet it is this absolutism, this arrogance of power, common to both this government and its predecessor, the Socialists of Felipe Gonzalez that has helped make ETA the formidable and dangerous force it has become. It is not enough to say Spain is now open and democratic. Nor is it enough to query the historical depth of the Basque nationalist cause, even though often enough it has inflated the uniqueness of Basque culture. It is, to use shorthand, important to remember Guernica. When the Nazi allies of Franco bombed that town in an act later immortalised by Picasso they crushed the Basque nationalist and socialist forces defending the region. And when elements in the government of Felipe Gonzalez unleashed their dirty war against ETA it resuscitated these bad old memories of repression and brutality. What Aznar does and says today- and under his government human rights abuses have been less but still do happen- is to keep alive that sense of being badly done by. Although the depth of bitterness and grievance among Basques might appear overdone to non-emotionally involved outsiders, it is enough to give the parties of independence 53% of the vote in the year 2001. This has to mean the solution lies in negotiation.

In September 1998 ETA declared a truce, explicitly modelled on the IRA's approach to the Irish peace process. It broke down because of ETA's anger at the PNV's supposed foot-dragging on the creation of a parallel Basque administration. It was this setback of the PNV that gave Aznar his opening for trying to defeat the PNV with a grand coalition. Now that ploy has failed it is clear he has no other clever ideas in his cupboard.

In an interesting new book published this month, "Dirty War, Clean Hands" an Irish author, Paddy Woodworth, remarks that the Belfast Easter Agreement of 1998 that brought an end to the IRA's violent campaign was "unimaginable to almost everyone in Britain and Ireland less than a decade ago". Ireland reminds us, he says, that democrats do, sooner or later, talk to terrorists who have significant political support. While Mr. Woodworth is clear that ETA have to launch a new truce he also makes the observant remark that "Madrid might do well to reflect on the Basque demand for self-determination in the context of a European Union that is comfortably forming bonds with new nation-states from Latvia to Slovenia, and where Scotland may be in the process of detaching itself from Britain." He concludes: " In a rather soullessly globalised world, the local and the particular becomes more and more important, and the Basque country is clearly a very particular place." It is time to talk.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



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