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The ETA Ceasefire

John Sullivan

ETA, THE ARMED wing of radical Basque nationalism, called a ceasefire on 17 September which is being compared to the peace deal in Northern Ireland. ETA and Herri Batasuna (HB), the Basque equivalent of Sinn Féin, have always seen the two situations as very similar and believe the comparison is valid.

In fact the Basque and Irish situations are very different, although there are strong similarities in the way that ETA’s leaders have followed the IRA’s example in recognising the defeat of its long struggle to create an independent Euskadi. Just as the IRA and Sinn Féin have allied with the SDLP, HB has drawn closer to the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) which has now moved to the foreground of the political stage. Karmelo Landa, Herri Batasuna’s former Euro MP, told Gerry Adams that while the Basque country needed an Adams, it needed a John Hume even more. The PNV is able and willing to reprise the Hume role. Moderate nationalists know that ETA cannot be crushed by police methods alone and do not wish that to happen. They fear that continuing violence will lose votes for all Basque nationalist parties in the elections for the Basque Autonomous Parliament to be held on 25 October. ETA knows that it is necessary to get the support of the PNV, from which it broke in 1959, if it is to extract real concessions from the Spanish government. Significantly, the statement announcing the ceasefire called for a Basque country which would be free, unified and Basque-speaking, but it omitted the customary "socialist" demand, presumably in deference to the PNV.

ETA has had a de facto ceasefire since June ending a disastrous policy of killing municipal councillors of the governing Partido Popular (PP). When ETA killed Miguel Angel Blanco in July 1997, revulsion in the Basque country and elsewhere in Spain produced mass demonstrations of emotion which prefigured the outbursts following the death of Princess Diana. Nevertheless, ETA followed that up by declaring open season on the PP’s politicians, causing considerable disquiet even among its traditional supporters. Criticisms from the church and from moderate nationalists could not be ignored as those from "Spanish" sources could, so an "Irish" strategy became attractive. ETA’s hard line was matched by harsher State repression. In December 1997 the entire national Committee of Herri Batasuna were sentenced to six years in prison for showing a video produced by ETA as part of their electoral campaign, although previously the State had accepted that HB, unlike ETA, was a legal political party. There were suggestions that HB would be banned. Consequently, it has formed a broader front, Euskal Herritarrok, to contest the elections to the autonomous Basque parliament on 25 October. That is not merely a name change. Some of the candidates are former HB leaders who fell from grace because of criticisms of ETA. The Spanish government seems to have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by denying that there need be any negotiation, thereby antagonising broad sections of the Basque population who desperately want peace.

In July the daily newspaper Egin was shut down and a number of its staff arrested. A government capable of closing a newspaper politically sympathetic to ETA might also suppress the trade union, LAB, and the youth and prisoner’s support groups. The acting leadership of HB moved to build a broader political base and their efforts met a response. From February of this year leaders of HB and the PNV have held a number of secret meetings to work out the basis of an agreement for a negotiated settlement. Once agreement was reached the two parties set up the Foro de Irlanda, which was supported by Izquierda Unida, the electoral alliance backed by the Communist Party, and 19 other organisations which called for an end to violence.

The initiative is unwelcome both to the Spanish government and to the Socialist Party (PSOE) who want to isolate radical nationalism and who, because of revulsion at ETA’s killings, seemed to be achieving that objective. The PSOE is embarrassed by the jailing of Barrionuevo, the former minister of the interior, for his role in setting up GAL, a covert organisation which killed, tortured and kidnapped many Basques, some of whom had no connection with ETA. At present, it suits the PP to embarrass the PSOE, but a deal will be done when unity against ETA requires it. The PSOE have adopted Barrionuevo as a socialist martyr, staging demonstrations outside his prison and comparing him to the socialists jailed for organising the 1917 general strike!

It would seem that whatever happens the PNV will come out of this well, both in the coming elections and in future power struggles, when it could form a voting bloc with HB’s successors. The "Irish" solution will probably succeed despite the opposition of the PP and PSOE. ETA has pulled back from a self-inflicted disaster. When it comes to the actual content of any settlement things are much less clear. ETA’s key demands of complete Basque independence and the incorporation of Navarre and the French Basque country, where Basque nationalism is weak, are unrealisable. An "Irish" solution would mean abandoning those, just as the IRA has relinquished its struggle for a united Ireland. In practice, ETA has downplayed its original objectives in recent years. The recent bloody struggles were part of a campaign, not for the release of ETA’s prisoners, but to move them to jails in the Basque country, in order to ease their families’ suffering. A refusal to free the prisoners would bring a resumption of the armed struggle as it would be inconceivable that the organisation would abandon them.

ETA like the IRA has a long history of leaderships who, having moved away from armed struggle, found themselves ousted by small groups of young activists who take up the gun. Inevitably, there is speculation that this could happen again, but ETA’s leaders are nationalists, not leftists. There are tensions between moderates and hardliners within Herri Batasuna but there are as yet no reports of opposition within the armed wing or among the prisoners to ETA’s new initiative.

It is too early to say what will happen to Herri Batasuna if ETA should disband. Its class composition is more varied than Sinn Féin’s and not all of the activists will be happy in an alliance with the PNV. However, there is no left force which could be a pole of attraction to them. The PCE has moved marginally to the left away from Santiago Carrillo’s policy of reconciliation with Franco’s heirs towards a more recognisably left position. Zutik, a group which includes sympathisers of the Fourth International (USFI), is part of the Foro de Irlanda, but is not strong enough to be a key player. It seems that the main beneficiary of ETA’s initiative will be the conservative PNV, which hopes that its dissident children will return to the parental home. At the very least, it should be able to form a pan-nationalist alliance in the future.