Belfast Telegraph

Tough tactics defused ETA, not political talks

ETA ending its campaign of violence is due more to reversals at the hands of the Spanish state than the embracing of truly political means, says Henry McDonald

The Basque separatist group ETA's announcement of a ceasefire at the weekend is not a victory for negotiations or talks, but rather marks a surrender.

It also underlines the message that the Northern Ireland peace process is often not the template for bringing other armed nationalist struggles to a peaceful end.

In the case of the current ETA cessation of violence, this has in large part come about due to a series of sustained security blows against the organisation on both sides of the Pyrenees.

Recent arrests of key ETA players in both northern Spain and France, increased Franco-Spanish security co-operation and a public revulsion against the violence has forced the separatist movement's hand.

Although ETA militants have been coming to Belfast, Derry and Dublin to meet with their Irish republican counterparts since the early 1970s, the former have, until very recently, failed to follow the latter into purely peaceful politics.

"They just don't get it - the primacy of politics," said one ex-IRA member to me after I asked why the mainstream republican movement failed to persuade ETA to give up its armed campaign.

Important players in the Northern Ireland peace process have toured the world relaying the story of their 'journey' from violence to democratic politics.

IRA, UDA and UVF members have all visited Israel and the West Bank urging restraint, compromise and dialogue to all sides.

However, it seems highly unlikely that what Martin McGuinness once called "rejectionist forces" (domestic ones) of the Middle Eastern variety will adopt the Northern Ireland model.

Hamas and Hezbollah are unlikely to 'do a Stormont' and accept Israel's existence in the way republicans have more or less accepted the existence of Northern Ireland.

There are two central lessons though that could be learned from the negotiations that took us to the ceasefires, through to the Good Friday Agreement and then St Andrews. It is not, however, one for ETA, but rather the Spanish government and its opposition.

One of the advantages of the Irish peace process was that those not only in power in Dublin and London, but also those on either side of their respective parliaments all sung from the same hymn sheet.

There was cross-party consensus in the Dail and the House of Commons that the IRA should be encouraged to come in from the cold and that unionism must eventually reach historic compromise with nationalism.

Unfortunately, for the peace process in the Basque country the right and left have often played politics and point-scoring over previous ETA ceasefires. The Conservatives try to paint the Socialists as weak in the face of terrorism and too prone to concessions that ETA will not reward.

If, instead, the ruling Socialists and the centre-right Partido Popular agree on a common strategy in dealing with ETA's latest cessation, it would give Spanish unionism a major strategic advantage.

In addition, a united Spanish unionism could follow the strategy adopted by the Ulster Unionists and later the DUP, yes to engage with their armed opponents, but only on the condition of eventual disarmament. Remember: it used to be called decommissioning?

In return, the Spanish state could demonstrate some generosity by early releases of ETA inmates and the transfer of prisoners from jails in Spain to ones in the Basque region.

ETA has been fighting since 1959 for independence and has gone through numerous mutations. The ETA today is not the ETA that killed Franco's chief policeman Admiral Blanco in the early 1970s. Indeed, some of those ETA members sentenced to death for Blanco's death ended up in the 1990s living under death threats from the modern ETA. That history of splits, ruptures and rebirth suggests the Spanish state will tread carefully in response to this latest statement, the significance of which should not be underestimated.

And here is a lesson from the Basque country for this society as well.

Because, back in the late 1970s, when Spain transformed from dictatorship back to democracy, and when the Socialists took power for the first time since the civil war, it was expected that Basque terrorist violence would peter out; that those in favour of separatism would all together work on a purely peaceful political basis. The expectation that ETA would evaporate in a democracy proved to be unfounded.

Mythological nationalism and the call of the dead generations was more enduring than first imagined after Felipe Gonzalez took power and announced that Spain was abandoning its past, putting a thin red line under the politics of the civil war.

We, too, of late, have experienced the return of the powerful hold of mythical nationalism, of unfinished business, of other dead generations haunting the living.

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