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Madrid on elections eve
needs to emulate Northern Ireland
when dealing with the Basque terrorists



Jonathan Power

March 11, 2004

LONDON - The on going terrorist threat from the Basque separatist group, ETA, has become the trump card for the ruling Popular Party in Spain's general election on Sunday. This goes to show that, while the Spanish think the Americans overdid it with their reaction to September 11th and 90% of them opposed Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar's decision to align himself with Washington in the Iraq war, when terrorism knocks on their own door they jump to the right like everyone else.

As with its counterpart, the Northern Ireland conflict, the continuation of Basque nationalist terrorism in Spain is too fueled by historical sentiment and myth on one side and by narrow minded authoritarianism on the other for easy settlement.

Hot debate
Ana Palacio, Spain's Minister of Foreign Affairs, answers Jonathan Power in International Herald Tribune, March 13, 2004: Spain and terrorism

Nevertheless, Northern Ireland has found a peace of sorts and the lion is lying down with the lamb, at least to the extent that the truce of 1998 is prevailing. But Basque militancy, in the form of the ETA guerrilla army, continues with its ferocious policy of assassination and intimidation, albeit at a slower pace than before, out of step not only with the rest of 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 not just what is said and done today but of the last regional elections two and a half years' ago, the last time the militants had a legitimate party to vote for. The radical leftist party, Batasuna, widely considered to be ETA's political wing and one that is associated with the necessity for violence in pursuit of the aim of winning independence from Spain, had its vote share cut in half. (The party has sinced been banned.)

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 effort of Spain's two principal national parties- the Popular party and the opposition Socialist party- failed  to win a clear mandate against independence, gaining just 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, or at least some status very close to that.

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The region is almost the antithesis of Northern Ireland. Whilst Northern Ireland has been depressed economically and divided by ancient religious hatreds, the Basque people share the same religion, have won a great degree of autonomy, including control of their own police force, and are now at the heart of one of the more bustling parts of Europe with the marvelous art museum, the Guggenheim, helping trigger the urban renewal of its largest city, Bilbao.

In the simple light of day there is no contest. Northern Ireland should be the difficult one and the Basque cause should have been blown away long ago with the winds of post Franco democratic change. It has not happened and shows little sign of happening, despite the repudiation at the poll of the pro ETA party. Its appeal even to middle class young recruits remains strong.

This is why Juan Jose Ibarretxe, leader of the PNV, says the central government has to re-engage in dialogue with Basque nationalism. "Dialogue to achieve what?" replies Mr. Aznar. "I have nothing to say on the question of self-determination."

It is this absolutism, this arrogance of power, common to both the government and its predecessor, the Socialists of former prime minister Felipe Gonzalez, that has helped make ETA the formidable and dangerous force it has become.

It is not sufficient, as the government does, to query the historical depth of the Basque cause, though often enough Basque loyalists have inflated the uniqueness of Basque culture. It is, to use shorthand, important to remember Guernica. When elements in the government of 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 happen- is to keep alive that sense of being badly done by. Though the depth of bitterness and grievance among Basques might appear overdone to non-emotionally involved outsiders, it was enough to give the parties of independence 53% of the vote in 2001. This has to mean the solution lies in negotiation.

Ireland reminds us that democrats do, sooner or later, talk to terrorists who have significant political support. In Spain too it is time to talk. 


Hot debate
Ana Palacio, Spain's Minister of Foreign Affairs, March 13, 2004, in International Herald Tribune:
Spain and terrorism
"Regrettably, the article evidences an astounding ignorance of the true situation in the Basque country," Palacio says in response to Power's March 12 column in the International Herald Tribune.


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


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


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40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

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