Two centuries of dispute over this parched but beautiful place

 

 Letter from Olivenza: In the blinding heat of high summer, the little whitewashed Iberian town of Olivenza slowly cooks under the sun. The temperature is so high in the afternoon that all human and animal life seeks shelter, writes Hugh O'Shaughnessy

 Activity comes to a stop inside the town walls and the shops shut until six o'clock when it gets a little cooler. Only the sunflowers in the fields and the orange trees planted along the town's pavements seem to enjoy the baking they receive.

Few in Ireland will have heard of Olivenza; but, if a local historian is to be believed, Ireland is written into the recent annals of ancient Olivenza. In the 1920s, says Carlos Luna, the new Government in Dublin complained to the Portuguese authorities because Portuguese maps were showing the six counties as part of the United Kingdom when they were part of the new Free State.

The foreign ministry in Lisbon replied by chiding the Government in Dublin because it showed Olivenza and the surrounding area as Spanish when in fact they were Portuguese.

Two centuries of dispute between Spain and Portugal over this beautiful but parched land beside the River Guadiana are destined to be revived in the next few weeks, in yet another set of pained exchanges between Lisbon and Madrid, the first in the 21st century.

Olivenza's narrow whitewashed streets are full of monuments to a Portuguese past. The main church is as good an example of the riotous 15th century Manueline style of architecture as anything in Portugal itself; walls sprout ancient marble plaques, some now defaced, bearing the unmistakable Portuguese arms, five escutcheons each bearing the dots which represent the five wounds of Christ.

Though neither government wants the dispute to get out of control, the Olivenza affair will have more than local repercussions. It will certainly affect Spain's attempts to reclaim control over Gibraltar from Britain and the bid by the government in Rabat to repossess Ceuta, Melilla and the other various enclaves that Spain maintains on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco.

It is difficult to see how José Manuel Durão Barroso, the former Portuguese prime minister now on course to be the new president of the European Commission, can escape being involved in the affair.

Big Spain and small Portugal have often had uneasy relations in the Iberian peninsula, their shared home - Spain took over Portugal entirely from 1580 to 1640. But the Olivenza affair dates only from 1801. In that year Spanish troops marched in during a short war, the War of the Oranges, which lasted less than three weeks. According to the Portuguese, they should have handed Olivenza back but they are still here today.

Though this town has lost the importance it once had as a fortress, Lisbon has never quite given up its claim for restitution and from time to time Portuguese nationalists push the government of the day to adopt a harder line with the Spaniards.

Despite the desire of the Lisbon government for a quiet life and an uninterrupted chance for both countries to make money within a fast-growing EU, these nationalists had their way in June with the foreign minister being called to report to parliament about Olivenza.

For Luna two centuries of Spanish rule in this town is little short of ethnic cleansing. "People talk Portuguese in a whisper out of fear of the consequences," he says.

For Luis Alfonso Limpo, the town's librarian, the Portuguese claim is rooted in the realms of fantasy. "The Portuguese have an inferiority complex and we Spaniards unfortunately have developed a guilt complex," he says.

Into the arena last year there stepped a Spanish heavyweight in the person of Máximo Cajal, a senior diplomat who had won praise for his cool head in the face of government terror when he was ambassador in Guatemala and who also served as his country's envoy in Paris.

Last year he published a book, Ceuta, Melilla, Olivenza y Gibraltar, in which he argued that Spain and Portugal must get together to get rid of the dispute over this town once and for all. If they don't, he warns, things threaten to get much worse.

His thesis is that Spain cannot dismiss the survival of British rule in Gibraltar after 300 years as an anachronism while at the same time saying that Portuguese claims to Olivenza are equally anachronistic.

Cajal said the idea that Spain should quit Olivenza was "unthinkable" but on the other hand Portuguese feelings could not just be trampled on. His outspoken views have won him few friends in Madrid.

Here on the ground there has been no violence and at first sight there are few signs of tension.

After endless bickering and unimaginable delays a modern bridge has been built over the River Guadiana, the de facto frontier which Lisbon does not accept, to link Olivenza on the east bank with the unutterably Portuguese city of Elvas on the west bank. It replaces one which was destroyed centuries ago.

Beside the road which the Portuguese claim is in Portuguese territory, the Spaniards erected a sign proclaiming "España". Someone - a Portuguese perhaps? - has obliterated the letters with black paint.

People who live in Co Armagh and in north Wales would be familiar with the scenario and recognise the passions.