Every two years Basque speakers vote with their feet. Thousands take part in the Korrika, a run supporting an ancient language that was outlawed by Franco’s dictatorship. There is a festive atmosphere here in Santutxu, a working-class part of Bilbao which stages the event. Yet I soon notice that many of the athletic participants are holding black-and-white placards.
Who are the stony-faced men in the photographs affixed to them? Prisoners, my new pal Victor tells me. It is my first time in the Basque Country but the political situation seems eerily familiar to someone who has spent most of his life observing Anglo-Irish relations. Although ETA is on ceasefire, the Madrid government won’t enter dialogue with its representatives. And I can’t help being reminded of how Britain’s then prime minister John Major refused to budge when the Provisional IRA called off its armed struggle in 1994. There was an inevitable consequence to Major’s obduracy: the Provos marked their return to violence after less than two years with a massive bomb in London’s Canary Wharf, killing a newsagent and his friend.
ETA – like the IRA – has committed numerous acts that are inexcusable. But simply condemning ETA as a terrorist organisation, without analysing what motivates its members appears to me both futile and counterproductive.
There is a widespread perception among outsiders that because the Basque Country was granted effective autonomy after Francisco Franco’s death in 1975, its inhabitants have nothing to whinge about. Bilbao has even successfully rebranded itself from a gritty industrial city to one where services drive the local economy and hipsters are drawn to its gleaming Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum (which, by the way, I highly recommend).
Just because a casual visitor does not notice a more repressive side to Basque life doesn’t mean it’s not there. From 1983 to 1987, the Madrid authorities sponsored death squads to kill, kidnap and torture both suspected ETA volunteers and non-combatants who had nothing to do with it. More recently, a draconian law allowing prison sentences for “glorifying” terrorism was introduced. Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights found that this offence denied liberty of expression. The court’s ruling followed a case taken by Arnaldo Otegi, a leading figure in the banned party Batasuna, who spent 12 months in jail for arguing that King Juan Carlos bore responsibility for an army that imposes “his monarchic regime on our people through torture”.
With 700 Basque political prisoners behind bars, the question of their detention is one of the most sensitive issues to be addressed. Despite ETA’s ceasefire, suspected members of the organisation are still being arrested. Spain has rejected calls from the United Nations Human Rights Council to end incommunicado detention. This cruel practice continues despite a December 2010 verdict in the criminal court of Guipúzcoa, in which four members of the Civil Guard were found guilty of torturing Basque prisoners held in isolation.
Spain’s prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has announced he will not be seeking a third term in elections slated for next year. Judging by its dismal performance in opinion polls, his party, the Socialists, will probably be booted out of office then. So what does he have to lose by striving to build a durable peace in the Basque Country?
The efforts to criminalise dissent defy common sense. What is there to fear from allowing Bildu – a party formed following the ban on Batasuna – from seeking an electoral mandate? In the North of Ireland, there is a distinct possibility that Martin McGuinness, a former IRA commander, will soon be appointed its first minister. Tony Blair doesn’t deserve much praise but his willingness to engage with Sinn Féin has shown that it is possible to make armed groups swap the bomb for the ballot box. If anything, the problem with McGuinness is that he has lost much of his radical edge and become a mainstream politician, willing to implement public service cutbacks imposed from London.
Otegi and his colleagues have displayed an interest in applying lessons from the Irish peace process to the Basque Country. Before his latest arrest in 2009, Otegi was a guest of Sinn Féin in Belfast. Gerry Adams, the party’s leader, has correctly described Otegi’s imprisonment as “an obstacle to the development of a process for peace-making and positive change”.
The European Union has not helped matters by placing ETA on its list of terrorist organisations. Peace processes depend on flexibility and compromise, yet the entire EU has developed a rigid approach of “we don’t talk to terrorists”. As an in-depth recent study by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights showed, this blacklisting policy has had a “tremendously negative impact on attempts to resolve long-standing conflicts and complex struggles for self-determination”. The West’s refusal to talk to Hamas, in particular, has fomented unnecessary divisions in Palestine. If EU governments were genuine about seeking peace in the Middle East, they would remove Hamas from that list immediately. It should also be noted that Spain’s stance on “terror” is highly selective. In 2002, a new law banned parties that do not condemn violence. The following year, José María Aznar, then the Spanish prime minister, signed up for the invasion of Iraq, a war opposed by 90% of his compatriots. I don’t recall seeing Aznar and his right-wing Popular Party banned from holding office for glorifying this monstrous act of terror. Do you?
•First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 24-30 April 2011