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Wednesday, 23 February, 2000, 13:26 GMT
Q & A: Northern Ireland and the Basque conflict

As the peace process in Northern Ireland continues despite its setbacks, there is little sign of an end to the Basque separatist conflict. Basque journalist Inigo Gurruchaga explains the links between the search for peace in Northern Ireland and in his home region.

What are the parallels between Northern Ireland and the Basque country?

Basque nationalism celebrates Aberri Eguna (The Day of Basque Fatherland) on Easter Sunday, inspired by the Irish Republican Easter Rising of 1916. The Basque group ETA, and the Irish group IRA, have historical links going back to the 1970s and their political wings, Herri Batasuna and Sinn Fein, have maintained brotherly relations for many years.

Basque nationalists see Irish nationalism as sharing with them a struggle of national liberation against big states, Spain and Great Britain. There are not religious divisions in the Basque country.

It can be argued also that Basque nationalists, a people of the north in Spain, share some features of their political make-up with unionists, a people of the north of Ireland. Miguel de Unamuno, a famous Basque philosopher, wrote: "I am a Basque, so I am an unionist."

How has the peace process in Northern Ireland affected Basque politics?

The mainstream Basque Nationalist Party, who has held the power in the region's government for 20 years, established in 1998 a dialogue with ETA and its political wing, Herri Batasuna, under the heading The Irish Forum. They discussed the lessons that could be learned from the experience of Northern Ireland.

Inigo Gurruchaga, Basque journalist
Inigo Gurruchaga
The outcome of the dialogue was an agreement between the different strands of Basque nationalism to cooperate in a common political programme seeking a constitutional change for the region.

Only days after that agreement, in September 1998, ETA declared an unconditional ceasefire. All this was clearly inspired by the early work undertaken by Nobel Peace Prize winner John Hume, and Republican leader Gerry Adams at the early stages of the Northern Ireland peace process.

Why has Spain not attempted Northern Ireland style negotiations?

Basque nationalists did not take their agreement to the political parties who are in favour of the Basque country remaining as a part of Spain, as Irish nationalists did with their unionist neighbours.

The Basques did not seek a constitutional negotiation among all parties as the one designed by the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. Basque nationalists acted as if the constitutional change depended only on their own will.

The Spanish Government never offered a constitutional dialogue with the political allies of ETA if there was a ceasefire, as John Major did when he was UK prime minister. The Spanish Government rejected all political dialogue and only wanted to keep a direct dialogue with ETA to guarantee peace but without political concessions.

Who is to blame for the collapse of the Basque peace process?

ETA is the only group waging some kind of war in the Basque country. The responsibility for peace is fully theirs. In their communiqué announcing their readiness to activate their paramilitaries from 3 December, ETA puts most of the blame on the shoulders of the Basque Nationalist Party for not fulfilling some secret agreements they had reached at the time of The Irish Forum. They blame, too, the Spanish and French Governments for not responding to their claims.

The Spanish government has a share of the blame for the continuous political instability in the Basque country. They have never offered an open constitutional dialogue to Basque nationalists to accommodate their claim to independence.

Are there any lessons that Spain can now learn from the successes and setbacks in the Northern Ireland peace process?

The Basque country in Spain is an autonomous region with its own government. The Basque government administers more powers transferred from Madrid - including its own treasury and police force - than the ones London devolved to Belfast's short-lived executive.

But the Spanish constitution of 1978 does not recognise the right of self-determination of the Basque country. An agreement on this very abstract question and about possible institutions for areas of common interest to Basques across Spain and France can only come through all-party negotiations based on consensus. This is already being done in Northern Ireland.

What are the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the Basque conflict?

The number of victims in the Basque conflict to date is more than four times lower than the number of victims as a consequence of the conflict in Northern Ireland. ETA is a very small group in steep military decline for more than a decade.

There has been renewed violence in Spain since the official breakdown of the ceasefire. But with general elections in Spain coming at the latest in early spring it is hoped the resumption of a peace process cannot be very far in the horizon.

Can there ever be the Basque equivalent of Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams sitting under the same roof as David Trimble?

Leaders of the Basque radical movement have occasionally taken their seats under the same roof as the Spanish government in the Spanish Parliament. Leaders of Herri Batasuna and of the Popular or Socialist parties, both pro-Spanish, seat daily under the same roof in the Basque Parliament.

It should be only a matter of time for the Spanish government to talk directly to the political allies of ETA when they have already spoken directly with the heads of ETA in the last months.

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