Conference calls on Eta to declare end to conflict

 

A BRIEF but high-profile international conference on the Basque conflict ended in San Sebastian yesterday afternoon, with a declaration calling on the armed group Eta to “state publicly that armed activity has ended definitively”.

There is much expectation in Spain that Eta will respond by disbanding itself completely, after half a century of “armed struggle” for Basque independence. Expectation has been heightened by the news that its former political allies in the banned Batasuna party will make a “solemn announcement” at a press conference this morning, with many veteran members present.

However, Brian Currin, the South African lawyer who has played a key role in bringing about Eta’s 13-month-old ceasefire, and in yesterday’s conference, told The Irish Timeslast night that he did not expect a definitive statement as soon as that.

“One can’t assume what Eta will say but, given the status of the delegates to the conference, I think it will be positive, and sooner rather than later,” he said – but not overnight.

These delegates included former taoiseach Bertie Ahern (who read out the declaration), former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, former French foreign minister Pierre Joxe, Tony Blair’s former senior adviser Jonathan Powell, and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. All have long experience of conflict resolution.

The strategy of Currin’s International Contact Group has been to draw Eta into a public commitment to such senior world figures, in whom the group may have more confidence than in any Spanish government. Parallel to this, Mr Currin hopes the Spanish (and French) governments will find it easier to respond to an appeal from such figures than to any demands from Eta or from Basque radicals.

So it is the wording of the next part of the conference declaration that will be subjected to micro-analysis, to see if it really offers a formula to engage the Spanish government. Hitherto Madrid has dismissed this peace process as a mere fig-leaf attempting to conceal the naked truth that Eta has been totally defeated by the police.

The conference also asked Eta to “request a dialogue” with the governments of both Spain and France – part of the region is governed by Paris – “exclusively for the discussion of the consequences of the conflict”. And then it asks the Spanish and French governments to welcome and enter into such a dialogue, should Eta announce a final end to violence.

Mr Currin confirmed last night that this tortuous wording means that the governments are being asked to discuss issues like prisoners, exiles, victims, decommissioning, and the normalisation of security with Eta. But, and this is crucial, they are not being asked to enter any political negotiations whatever with the group.

So what response does he expect from the governments? “Again, given the people making the declaration, I would imagine they will make a positive response, if Eta does.”

Mr Ahern had told the conference: “ You are on the edge of a lasting peace, but politicians … need to be courageous and take some big and brave steps to reach that promised land.”

In recent years, most Spanish politicians have shown no inclination to take such steps. Eta’s bloody rupture of the 2006 peace process had convinced the Spanish prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and his Socialist Party (PSOE) that a negotiated settlement was impossible.

The conservative opposition party, the Partido Popular (PP), was bitterly opposed to the 2006 talks and most Spanish public opinion regards any concessions to Eta as toxic.

While the PP looks set to win upcoming general elections in late November, Mr Zapatero may be tempted to step down as the man who ended Eta, and not, as he is currently portrayed, as the man who ruined the Spanish economy.

At the last minute, the PSOE authorised a Basque delegation to attend the conference. But they have very little time left to bring this conflict to a complete close.