In Spain, as in Ulster, repression will not stop murderous terrorists

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The assassination in Madrid yesterday of a Supreme Court judge and two others is the deadliest attack by the Basque terrorist group Eta since the breakdown of a truce at the end of last year. Dozens were injured in the car-bomb explosion, a morally vile and politically senseless act timed to coincide with rush-hour traffic in the Spanish capital.

The assassination in Madrid yesterday of a Supreme Court judge and two others is the deadliest attack by the Basque terrorist group Eta since the breakdown of a truce at the end of last year. Dozens were injured in the car-bomb explosion, a morally vile and politically senseless act timed to coincide with rush-hour traffic in the Spanish capital.

In recent decades, the United Kingdom has been no stranger to terrorism. After 30 years of troubles in Northern Ireland, everybody is well aware that some misguided zealots have long believed violence to be the only way forward. Even now, there is a sense of sister feeling between Eta and the IRA, and between the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna party and its counterpart, Sinn Fein. Both sides are happy to bathe in the warm glow of togetherness, and perceive each other as fighting on behalf of the oppressed.

There is, however, a radical difference between the IRA and Eta. The IRA, even at its most murderous, reflected genuine grievances - about the Protestant bias of the police force or discrimination in housing, for example - which caused bitterness among many ordinary Catholics, including those who abhorred violence.

The Basque country in Spain, by contrast, has already achieved a remarkable degree of autonomy. Under General Franco, Basque rights were severely restricted. But Franco has been dead for a quarter of a century. In the meantime, Basques enjoy rights which many other ethnic groups elsewhere in Europe can only envy. The Basques have their own police force, their own health service, their own powers of taxation - and their parliament is ruled by a Basque party.

Madrid appeared in recent years to have made all the right conciliatory noises, showing a readiness to compromise in the interests of all, and paving the way for a Spanish version of the Good Friday Agreement. In 1998, Eta announced a ceasefire, and in June last year direct talks between government and Eta were held. So far, so Ulster. It seemed that everybody might live almost happily ever after.

The reality, however, has been very different. Ten months ago, the ceasefire ended. There have been a string of killings this year. The arrest of a number of Eta leaders has done little to curb the violence. Yesterday's killings represented one more nauseating jolt.

It seems unlikely that yesterday's deaths will be the last. Equally, however, Madrid seems to have lost its belief in dialogue as the way forward. The government believes it can simply crush Eta by reverting to the politics of the cosh. It is wrong. The politics of the cosh are rarely successful except in the very short term - and often, as the example of Eta's bombing tactics seems to indicate, not even then. The government runs the danger of creating fault-lines that did not exist before.

The Northern Ireland peace process has remained shaky; there is always plenty to keep the sceptics happy. It has become increasingly clear, however, that keeping the process alive - whatever the cost - is sometimes the most important element in the equation. Murky deals are a necessary part of the process. Absolutism, by contrast, is likely to be the worst option.

The revulsion of ordinary Basques against Eta can be a powerful weapon against Eta's murderous tactics. Repression by central government is not.

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