The sovereign can no longer say, "You shall think as I do on pain of death;" but he says, "You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people."

(Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

ETA declare a ceasefire... again.

For the second time in four years (and the fourth time overall), the armed Basque separatist group ETA have announced a ceasefire... or rather they have announced that they will "not carry out armed actions."

There is little political substance in their statement and certainly nothing new, although one can almost admire their audacity for claiming that "ETA has contributed to proposals for cooperative actions and resolutions of the conflict."

The immediate reaction in Spain and elsewhere is that ETA are calling a ceasefire because they have no choice, because they are too weak to do otherwise and that this announcement is simply window-dressing to make it seem like they retain the initiative.

Indeed, the basic facts speak for themselves. When Mikel Karrera Sarbe - a.k.a Ata - was arrested in May this year, he became the sixth suspected ETA leader to have been arrested since November 2008. ETA has tried (and supposedly failed) to move its support and logistics infrastructure from France to Portugal. They provoked outrage (and the ire of Nicolas Sarkozy) by killing a French policeman in March this year. Quite simply, ETA had nowhere else to go.

An interesting aspect to this story is the claim by Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams that Irish republicans played an important role in persuading ETA to put down their guns. While it is hard to ascertain just how influential Irish voices were in the Basque decision-making process, Adams does make a very necessary point about the role of the Spanish government:
"There is also a heavy responsibility on the Spanish government to grasp this opportunity for peace and progress. It needs to be farsighted, to think strategically and to ignore those voices that seek a resolution in terms of victory and defeat."
Unfortunately that seems highly unlikely given the initial reaction from Madrid in the shape of Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba:
"Eta kills in order to impose itself, so that means one cannot dialogue. Eta has stopped because it cannot do anything ... and also in order to rebuild itself."
While the second part of the statement is undoubtedly true, the first reflects a deeply ingrained mindset within the Spanish State - regardless of which political party happens to be in power. By way of contrast, when the British government was accused by the SDLP (moderate Irish nationalist party) of only talking to the political wings of Republican and Loyalist paramilitary groups because they had guns, Jonathan Powell responded "and your point is?"

Having said that, Pérez did no more than articulate the feelings of probably a large majority of Spaniards so, purely from a political point of view, he arguably couldn't have said anything else.

However, it is to be hoped that behind the scenes the Spanish State will indeed be astute enough to take a long-term, strategic approach to this opportunity. For example, if it is indeed true, as alleged, that ETA are merely calling a temporary ceasefire in order to regroup then now is exactly the time, during their period of inactivity, to try and reintegrate ETA militants and their support base (what's left of it) into mainstream society and political life, as I have argued before. Above all, Madrid must positively respond to the Basque left and legalise those parties which do genuinely seek political solutions through peaceful, democratic means and always have done.

This entails 'legalising' the very concept of Basque nationalism, which historically has been an existential non-starter for the Spanish State which has too often sought to taint all Basque nationalists with ETA's violence. However this is very definitely a "democratic minimum" for a political process and the best way to render ETA completely irrelevant and seal their defeat. If Madrid fails to seize this opportunity, then their statements in response to ETA's announcement will very likely become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

PS: Anybody puzzled by the face-masks and berets on display can find answers here.

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