The announcement of a ceasefire by Eta on Sunday was the culmination of years of debate, discussion and strategising among Basque activists. It is a significant development and a genuine attempt to contribute to a resolution of the conflict. I believe it has the potential to bring about a permanent end to the conflict with the Spanish state.
This dialogue also involved senior Sinn Féin representatives, including myself. Sometimes the discussions were held in the Basque country, sometimes in Belfast, and on a number of occasions in recent years Sinn Féin representatives travelled to Geneva for meetings with Basque representatives. Many in the Basque country look to the Irish peace process for inspiration, and much of what has been attempted there in the last decade has been modelled on our experience.
Given the experience of the 2006 cessation – which ended in mutual recrimination in after only nine months – there will be those on both the Basque and Spanish sides who will be sceptical and cautious. But caution should not be allowed to encourage preconditions to dialogue. Caution should not be allowed to block progress.
In the Irish peace process we saw how games of scrabble were played around the use and interpretation of certain words, and some of these became preconditions which were then used to delay progress.
To succeed, a credible process between the Basque people and the Spanish state has to respect democratic mandates. The electorate has the right to choose the party it wants to represent it, and this decision should be accepted and respected by the Spanish government.
Toward the end of last year and into this year an impressive internal process of strategy formulation took place among Basque parties, trade unionists and political activists. This involved thousands of activists. The debate was about agreeing a new political approach.
In February a conference of the Abertzale Left, which includes the banned Basque party Batasuna, agreed a new, broad-front approach. This, too, draws heavily from the Irish experience.
The new strategy commits Basque participants to “exclusively political and democratic means” and seeks to achieve political change “in a complete absence of violence and without interference” and “conducted in accordance with the Mitchell Principles“. The strategy finds its echo in the weekend statement by Eta.
In its video message Eta confirmed “its commitment to finding a democratic solution to the conflict. In its commitment to a democratic process to decide freely and democratically our future, through dialogue and negotiations, Eta is prepared today as yesterday to agree to the minimum democratic conditions necessary to put in motion a democratic process, if the Spanish government is willing.
“We also convey this to the international community and call on it to respond to Eta’s will and commitment in order to participate in the building of a durable, just and democratic resolution to the centuries-long political struggle.”
Of significance is the fact that Abertzale Left in its response to the Eta statement is describing that initiative as a “unilateral and unconditional cessation of military operations indefinitely”. It also speaks of its recognition that it should continue to develop initiatives, making “commitments and compromising” in order to make progress.
The Abertzale Left position would suggest that the Basque parties understand the need to build on this initiative. There is also a heavy responsibility on the Spanish government to grasp this opportunity for peace and progress. It needs to be farsighted, to think strategically and to ignore those voices that seek a resolution in terms of victory and defeat.
The international community, too, has a role to play, just as it did in the Irish peace process and is currently doing in the negotiations on the Middle East which commenced last week.
There are dangers ahead. No conflict resolution process can be risk-free for its participants. But the benefits of succeeding far outweigh the dangers of failure.