VIEW: More fudge needed for Basque peace —Jonathan Power
Peace finally came to Northern Ireland with the parties lying to each other and to themselves. It is what one observer has called “a working misunderstanding”. It successfully created a non-violent political environment that enabled each side to believe it can fulfil its political agenda by peaceful means, though we outsiders could and can see that the agendas are in fact irreconcilable
What the peace negotiators of Northern Ireland have taught the world with its plethora of ethnic conflicts — albeit many less than a decade ago — is the power of ambiguity. But can ambiguity live forever? Northern Ireland is still working out an answer to that question, 11 years since the ceasefire of the Irish Republican Army in August, 1994, and seven years since the momentous Good Friday peace agreement. Maybe not, but it appears it can live long enough to change the culture of violence.
Spain now confronts the same question with the Basque struggle for independence. As Saturday’s mass march organised by the Association of the Victims of Terrorism in Madrid reminded us passions on both sides of the fence run very high.
The relatively new socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has broken the long-standing logjam of Spanish politics by announcing that it is prepared to talk to ETA, the armed wing of the Basque political movement, Batasuna, as long as ETA renounces violence. But that on its own, it is becoming clear, won’t be enough to bring ETA to the table. ETA wants to hear that Madrid recognises that the destiny of the Basque country is first and foremost in its own people’s hands.
Historians recall that the story of Northern Ireland began with a fudge — when in 1921 the Irish prime minister, Eamonn de Valera, went along with the creation of Northern Ireland, convincing himself and the Irish electorate that the border would be temporary. Until the IRA was reborn in the 1960s that did keep the peace.
Real peace finally came to Northern Ireland over the last decade with a number of new fudges, the parties lying to each other and to themselves. It is what one observer has called “a working misunderstanding”. It successfully created a non-violent political environment that enabled each side to believe it can fulfil its political agenda by peaceful means, though we outsiders could and can see that the agendas are in fact irreconcilable.
Northern Ireland, having made astonishing progress towards the development of common institutions of governance, now seems to have finally gone as far as fudge can take it. Further political progress is badly stalled, but the guns remain quiet. The initial demand that the IRA destroy their weapons caches was finessed with the words “put beyond use”. It was only a matter of time before the fundamentalist, firebrand, Ian Paisley — having replaced the Nobel prize winning leader, David Trimble, an author of the peace agreements, as the electorate’s choice to carry the Protestant banner — called the IRA’s bluff on this. What is remarkable, despite this seismic shift on the political front, is that the mass of the populace is self-policing the ceasefire. Very few on either side are prepared to allow their hardliners to go back to the day when the gunmen set the pace. Peace — and the centre — still hold. The fudge has done, and for now continues to do, its good work.
Can Spain repeat this success? It has much going for it. Its basic problems are less severe than Northern Ireland. There is no religious divide. The region is prosperous. The regional government led by Juan José Ibarretxe, a Basque nationalist, controls the police. Many items on the Basque agenda seem reasonable — after all Scotland has long had its own judiciary and more recently, as I have just discovered, is quietly opening its own diplomatic missions in places like China. The roof hasn’t fallen in on Britain and why should it on Spain?
But Madrid must realise that there is one step it has to take, one that will certainly cause Zapatero a full frontal assault from his opponents in the conservative Popular Party who still rankle from their unexpected defeat in last year’s elections.
This crucial step is to repeat what Britain did in Northern Ireland when London publicly recognised the Irish people’s right to determine their own future. It was this that brought the IRA to the negotiating table, and it is clear that ETA/Batasuna are holding out for a similar form of words.
Spaniards on both sides of the political spectrum say they will never concede this. But in truth it would just be one more useful fudge. As the recent regional elections for the Basque country made clear the militant Basque cause is declining in intensity. Indeed, Zapatero should be prepared eventually to go even further and say that he finds no problem about Ibarretxe’s desire to hold a referendum on self-determination. Despite all the posturing and all the rhetoric the fact is the militants could never convincingly win a referendum
The writer is a leading columnist on international affairs, human rights and peace issues. He syndicates his columns with some 50 papers around the world