Why Basque flag flies over Belfast's republican heart

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The Independent Online

Basque flags and emblems this week fluttered over west Belfast, the city's republican heartland, as Basque separatists and Irish republicans again reasserted their fellow-feeling. Despite the many differences in their situations, the two traditions enjoy a bond which goes back many decades.

Basque flags and emblems this week fluttered over west Belfast, the city's republican heartland, as Basque separatists and Irish republicans again reasserted their fellow-feeling. Despite the many differences in their situations, the two traditions enjoy a bond which goes back many decades.

That link may become more embarrassing to Sinn Fein if ETA goes on using bombs and bullets at a time when Irish republicans continue their journey away from violence. But for the moment the sense of identification remains strong.

In west Belfast on Tuesday, Basque activists gave speeches and showed a video, following that with their traditional music and dancing and food. There was also a minute's silence for those killed in the Basque country.

At a political level, the sense of being kindred spirits was forged in the days when both ETA and the Irish republican movement were regarded by many as pariahs because of their resort to violence. Each of them found it useful to have an ally in the same boat. This week Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein said: "We are no strangers to violence and death over here and we extend our deepest sympathy to our Basque friends who stood by us in our darkest days."

Although security agencies no doubt take a keen interest in the connection, the authorities have not for many years voicedconcerns that the two may be involved in a more sinister way in terms of activities such as trading weapons or bombing expertise.

In Belfast, the general feeling has been that ETA was closely studying the Irish peace process, and, in calling a ceasefire had probably been strongly influenced by the IRA's cessation in 1994.

One possible parallel lies in ETA saying the primary reason for the abandonment of its ceasefire, and the resort to the fresh wave of killings, was due to the alleged refusal of the authorities to open serious talks with its representatives. This was the same reason given by the IRA in 1996 when it broke its first ceasefire with the bomb on the Isle of Dogs in east London, claiming the Major government was refusing to convene all-party talks.

Another parallel lies in the ETA demand for the introduction of international elements. This was also an aim of Irish republicans, which resulted in the involvement of figures such as former United States senator George Mitchell, Cyril Ramaphosa, former secretary-general of the African National Congress, and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari.

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