The Basque country


By David Alton

Universe Column for Sunday August 31st 2003

A holiday in northern Spain, in the Basque country, underlined for me the parallels with northern Ireland.  Breathtaking countryside, generous hospitality and a profound faith are matched by fierce loyalties, visceral hatred of national government, and polarised political attitudes.

Intimidation of those who refuse to support ETA – the terror group who use violence to further their aim of creating a Basque state in northern Spain and south west France – is commonplace.

Over the summer, a priest who hired a personal bodyguard because of threats to his life, was forced to flee his parish of Maruri. Fr. Jaime Larrinaga said “I have defined myself as an opponent of terrorism and that is why I have been persecuted.” Demonstrations in support of the priest have been staged by moderate Basque nationalists opposed to the use of terror.

The parallels with the IRA and the non-violent nationalist of the SDLP in northern Ireland are self-evident. So is the spark that has initiated this summer’s escalation of violence. The central government in Madrid suspended Batasuna – the political wing of ETA and that in turn has led to more bombs being laid. ETA’s fatalities over the past three decades now number more than 800 people and in addition to the dead many more have been wounded or disfigured.

There have also been a series of on-off cease-fires. In 1998 ETA said it had begun a “unilateral and indefinite” ceasefire but it called it off in November 1999 and they now say that they are particularly targeting inward investment and the tourist infrastructure. Sadly, there has been no equivalent of the British-Irish Peace Process or the Good Friday Agreement. Nor has there been a dispassionate assessment of both the nationalist case for separation or a proper understanding of the tortured history of the Basque people.

I was particularly moved to visit Gernika, a Basque town signalled out for an exemplary punitive attack during the Spanish Civil War. On April 26th 1937 Franco’s German and Italian allies sent 59 planes to destroy the town during a bombardment that lasted for three hours. About 1,650 people were killed. Picasso’s famous painting named after the town vividly captures some of the horror.

The succession of atrocities carried out by both sides sealed this period of history with vengeance and blood.

During World War two the Basques sides with Britain and the Allies and their government in exile was officially recognised. In the aftermath of the War it was more expedient to mollify Franco and the Basques felt betrayed and driven into a corner. Out of all this ETA campaign of terrorism was born.

If all of this starts to sound depressingly familiar, one other parallel with northern Ireland can be drawn – but this one gives pause for hope. As in northern Ireland, the vast majority of Basques wholeheartedly oppose the use of violence.

Perhaps this silent majority, and the courageous stand of Father Larrinaga, will be the catalyst to kick start a peace process. When the violence does finally, the Basque country will have a fine future.