Spain's peace inspired by the Irish

SPANIARDS, and Basques, reacted with joy yesterday to the declaration by the separatist group Eta of a permanent truce after 30 years of bloodshed.

While the conservative government in Madrid played down the radical nationalists' gesture, Basques themselves were encouraged and in some cases elated, though they stressed this was just the beginning. The Interior Minister, Jaime Mayor Oreja, recognised that most people's reaction was "happiness and relief" but added that Eta's bloody record "proves that scepticism is necessary".

Among Basques who have sought a peaceful solution for years, many feel the ceasefire marks the beginning of a long process that could end the conflict for good, with the bonus that the gunmen could participate with their honour intact.

The spirit and detail of the Irish peace process have been crucial. Eta's political allies have sought and received guidance in opening up their own peace process from Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness, for one, has advised the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna party, and visited the region in 1995. Other Sinn Fein leaders including Gerry Adams have also been there.

Joseba Pemach, regional spokesman for the Herri Batasuna (HB) in the Basque city of San Sebastian, said as much in an interview with The Independent last autumn when he said that his organisation had launched a discussion forum on Ireland and had invited other Basque parties to participate.

"If Madrid were to adopt something like a Downing Street declaration, we would study it with interest," he said.

For the first time HB was opening out to other forces, instead of remaining sealed inside its own rhetorical bubble, endlessly demanding that prisoners be brought nearer home, and haranguing even potential sympathisers about the non-negotiability of an independent Basque homeland.

One of the most positive responses came from a low-key non-party mediating group called Elkarri, which had for years sought to persuade all political forces of the need for a neogitated end to the conflict.

The softening of HB's approach followed one of Eta's worst recent attacks - the kidnapping and murder in July last year of the young Basque councillor Miguel Angel Blanco, which brought millions of Spaniards on to the street in protest. HB realised that it was alienating the very people it sought to win.

But the new line had quietly taken shape before July, during an HB visit to Northern Ireland. "This was decisive in changing their attitude," an Elkarri spokesman said yesterday. "Because until that moment, HB despite its good relations with Sinn Fein had been sceptical about the IRA ceasefire and said the Irish and the Basque processes were not comparable. But on that visit, and after discussions with Sinn Fein, HB decided to abandon the hard line." It sent delegations and study groups to Ireland and deliberately copied Sinn Fein's rapprochement with John Hume's SDLP by seeking alliances with the centre-right Basque Nationalist Party and other democratic Basque forces.

The process even survived the imprisonment of the entire HB leadership in December for collaborating with gunmen. While still supporting Eta ("but not its violent methods") HB began to carve out a political independence it had never had before and sought to supplant Eta as leader of the national independence movement.

Eta has been seriously weakend recently by French and Spanish police action, although even the Interior Ministry admits its killing power remains intact. Meanwhile, the political climate has rarely been more disposed to welcome Eta's offer, after an Irish inspired agreement last weekend among most Basque forces to launch a dialogue even without a ceasefire.