Terrorism: Spain follows Irish example to peace in Basque Country

Elizabeth Nash
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:38

An ambitious plan has been put together to bring peace to the Basque Country. Strongly influenced by the Irish example, it seeks to achieve by consensus some of the constitutional changes sought by the armed separatist organisation Eta. Elizabeth Nash in Madrid examines an initiative which has won supporters across Spain's political spectrum.

A plan has been maturing over two years that seeks to achieve by consensus an extension of Basque rights that could meet some of the demands of the separatist organisation Eta. The plan, details of which are now emerging, has won support among representatives of a wide range of Spanish opinion, including a leading conservative lawyer who was one of the five authors of the post-Franco democratic constitution of 1978.

The proposal, expected to be discussed in the New Year by regional parliaments of both the Basque Country and Navarra, would eventually have to be approved by parliament in Madrid. It is backed by all Basque political parties including the pro-Eta Herri Batasuna (HB) party which has regional MPs in both Vitoria and Pamplona - the Basque and Navarran regional capitals.

Significantly, it has not been rejected by the conservative Interior Minister in Madrid, Jaime Mayor Oreja. This is the first time in 20 years a peace initiative has not been rejected by one or other party interested in resolving the Basque conflict.

This broad range of tolerance has been built around the idea of developing an annex to the 1978 constitution that "respects, protects and adapts" the historical rights exercised by the Basque Country and Navarra in relation to the Spanish crown. Many in Navarra are Basque, and the region is regarded by Basque separatists as part of the Basque homeland they seek to break away from Spain.

The draft bill envisages the creation of "new participatory processes" inspired by the historical rights or "fueros" of the two regions that predate the 1978 constitution but are recognised by it. The proposal could therefore be adopted by consensus within the existing constitutional framework. Interpretation of these rights goes to the root of the Basque conflict, the definition of sovereignty and the relationship between Spain's autonomous regions.

The idea is to create, in the first instance, an all-party working group of regional MPs that would study the matter over the next 12 months, in a process consciously borrowed from the Irish experience of all-party talks.

Crucial to the success of the initiative has been the support of Miguel Herrero de Minon, a conservative lawyer of enormous prestige throughout Spain who was one of the five drafters of the 1978 Constitution. Don Miguel, as he is known even by Socialists not given to respecting ancient honorifics, at one point sought to succeed Manuel Fraga as leader of the Popular Party, but his austere, patrician style was considered insufficiently populist for a party seeking to reinvent itself in the democratic era, and he lost out to Jose Maria Aznar.

The initiative attempts to tidy up some Basque business that the constitution left unresolved, as the annex tacitly recognises. Unlike Galacia and Catalonia, who were represented on the constitutional drafting committee, no one spoke up specifically for the Basques. This created a fierce and lasting resentment, reflecting probably the most important defect in a document that has proved remarkably resilient in accommodating the transformations of the last 20 years.

In the referendum on the constitution, two-thirds of Basque voters abstained and 23.5 per cent voted "no" amid overwhelming approval from the rest of Spain. This provided Eta with the argument that Madrid continued, even under democracy, to spurn the region's popular will. Pro-Eta circles also point to the clause in the constitution that gives the armed forces the duty to defend Spain's territorial unity. They interpret this to mean that attempts at Basque self-determination will inevitably prompt tanks to roll.

The latest proposal is the brainchild of the Basque mediation group Elkarri ("Mutual Dialogue"), a low-key outfit that has engaged in painstaking talks with every political and social current interested in resolving the Basque conflict.

"We know it is impossible to get everyone to sit down together, so we adopted the technique of circular mediation, talking one-to-one to each person then taking the message to the others, gradually refining points in common," an Elkarri spokesman said this week.

"The problem was to keep the process going, quietly, discreetly, without burning it by clumsy handling. We interviewed some 200 people, politicians, legal experts, academics, trade unionists, a broad mix of people that built up into a comprehensive network of support."

Should the all-party working group of Basque and Navarran MPs start work early next year, the idea's sponsors believe that Eta would be under enormous pressure to suspend armed actions throughout the year, because its political ally, Herri Batasuna, would be a participant.

A key link that could keep the separatists onside is an understanding reached between the Basque trade union leader Jose Elorrieta and Rafael Diez, leader of the union linked to HB. "This is similar to what happened between John Hume and Gerry Adams: establishing bridges between sectors that are ideologically close but separated by violence," the Elkarri spokesman said.

"What is on the table is a point of contact, like the Downing Street declaration, that can open the discussion and could produce a new relationship between the Basques and the Spanish crown."

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