The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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What is happening in Spain does not make sense. Week before last, as the police dragged members of the recently “illegalized” Basque separatist party, Batasuna, from their party offices in Bilbao, the evicted activists chanted “pim, pam, pum” (bang, bang, bang) — in effect a threat that their military wing, ETA (Basque Land and Liberty), would take revenge on the police. And the next weekend, ETA duly hijacked a van and left it parked under a Bilbao freeway with a 40 kg bomb (though later defused) aboard.

At least ETA made a change from its tactic of targeting foreign tourists by burying bombs on Spanish beaches. But why would a significant number of the two million Basques, who have freedom, prosperity, and more autonomy than any other comparable region in Europe, feel sympathy for these terrorists' Why would 10 to 15 per cent of Spain’s Basque citizens regularly vote for Batasuna, a political party that they know is only a front for the terrorists'

Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna or ETA emerged in the early Seventies, in the dying days of the Franco dictatorship, but it really got going only after democracy had been restored in Spain — fewer than a dozen of the 836 killings attributed to ETA were committed before Franco’s death. It can never achieve its goal of independence through the ballot: 85 to 90 per cent of the electorate in the Basque region vote for moderate Basque nationalists or mainstream Spanish parties. But there is still that other 10 to 15 per cent.

Will not speak

There is no comparable constituency for terror and murder elsewhere in western Europe. The long and bitter quarrel between the Flemish and French-speakers of Belgium has never got beyond insults and fisticuffs. The Swiss, despite their four languages, are models of tolerant coexistence. Even in Northern Ireland, the killing has stopped at last. It does not make sense that some Basques are still at it.

But neither do the Spanish government’s actions make much sense. More than a quarter-century of tough security measures has not ended ETA’s struggle, so it’s obvious that there must be a political solution. For which you need a political partner.

Unfortunately, since the election of Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party government in 1996, there has been nobody in Madrid who wants to talk. An 18-month ceasefire by ETA, which ended two years ago, achieved nothing because the government made no response whatever. And the war on terrorism launched by Washington after September 11, 2001 has emboldened Aznar’s government to ban Batasuna entirely.

Opposite direction

In Madrid, all the major parties agree that this is a wise move. In the Basque country itself, however, the doubts are huge. The regional government, led by the moderate, non-violent Basque Nationalist Party, is deploying its police against Batasuna only with the gravest misgivings: “This operation takes us further from peace,” said Basque interior minister, Jose Jon Imaz, as he gave the necessary orders.

Is he right' The experience of Northern Ireland suggests that he is. For over 30 years, the Irish Republican Army waged a savage terrorist war in Northern Ireland. But through it all the British government refused to ban the Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political front, and the moral equivalent of Batasuna, because it believed that the substantial proportion of the Catholic population who backed its goals and methods should not be stripped of all political representation.

The pay-off was the Good Friday agreement in Belfast four years ago, the decisive step that ended the decades of violence and brought the Catholic minority’s biggest political grouping back into the political process. They first had to be convinced that they could not win their goal by force of arms, of course, but even after that they had to be allowed a face-saving way back into the normal political process. Spain, unfortunately, is moving in the other direction.

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