Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Basques now look to us to guide them towards peace

The Basques are turning to Northern Ireland to learn dialogue's role in moving on from conflict. Brian Rowan reports

The questions in the conversation were familiar; the same ones we needed answered not that many years ago. But this time they were being asked by a Basque delegation visiting Belfast.

There have been recent significant developments in their process - an international peace conference in San Sebastian attended by Gerry Adams, Bertie Ahern and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and within days, an announcement by ETA of a definitive cessation of its armed activity.

The Belfast visit was under the theme: Building Reconciliation Bridges. The delegation included two representatives of the Lokarri project, Rios and Maialen Lizarralde, Rut Martinez of the Basque Nationalist Party, PNV, and youth representatives.

Last Saturday, I was part of a group who met the delegation in the company of Sinn Fein Councillor Caoimhin Mac Giolla Mhin and the former Methodist President Harold Good, a church witness to the IRA's decommissioning. The meeting was arranged and chaired by my son, Ruairi, and hosted by Peter Sheridan, the former senior police officer and now chief executive of Co-operation Ireland.

We discussed with the delegation familiar topics and problems.

"The first thing it showed me was how much we had matured - that people can have these conversations," Sheridan said afterwards.

But what was in it for the visiting delegation? "The danger of making the mistakes we made can be avoided by listening to groups like Saturday's," Sheridan added.

In the final declaration from the San Sebastian Conference, the question of dialogue was addressed. It stated: "We suggest that non-violent actors and political representatives meet and discuss political and other related issues, in consultation with the citizenry, that could contribute to a new era without conflict.

"In our experience, third-party observers or facilitators help such dialogue. Such dialogue could also be assisted by international facilitators, if desired by those involved."

But William Smith, who chaired the 1994 loyalist ceasefire news conference offered a word of caution: "The danger in using intermediaries is that it gives people the excuse not to talk directly."

The complex issue of apology was discussed, as was demands made by politicians, including that ETA disband, and the questions of victims, prisoners, media reporting and the importance of dialogue.

We were able to describe some of the demands made here: that the IRA wear sackcloth and ashes, that decommissioning should be photographed, that the IRA's 'army council' should publicly disband - demands that were not met, yet the process here survived.

Caoimhim Mac Giolla Mhin spoke of the importance of patience, allowing time and sticking together. The loyalists John Howcroft, Jackie McDonald and William Smith focused on the importance of community development.

"They need to develop at a community level," said Smith. "You can't leave this process to 'big P' politics. You need to develop with people on the ground.

Harold Good and the journalist Mervyn Jess both made the point that the people are often ahead of the politicians; that being able to live in peace is what really matters.

Paul Rios said the delegation wanted to learn about the idea of compromise, dialogue and trying to break that image of the enemy.

On Saturday, they saw one-time enemies sit in the same room, debate and argue over difficult issues.

"If you can resolve one big problem, for example the problem here in Northern Ireland, you can resolve a smaller problem, like in the Basque country," added Rios.

"The process in Northern Ireland encourages us to say, 'We can do that.'"

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