Resigned Basque marchers signal Eta's violent war is over


BASQUE LETTER:While townhall banners still snarl out messages of autonomy, the consensus is armed struggle should end, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

A NECKLACE of romantically isolated hamlets – Ordoki, Arizkun, Bozate, Erratzu – is strung out along the road which leads from Elizondo in the Baztan valley. It winds on up quite gently to the lovely Izpegi pass, before dropping down again towards the slate-clad spire of the church in Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry. The dark-green oak forests which clothe much of these Pyrenean foothills are burnished this month with the soft golds of flowering Spanish chestnuts.

For Basque nationalists, this is heartland, the pass one of a dozen uniting the twin Navarres, divided today by the French-Spanish border. Dolmens in the woods speak to them of a single ancient Basque heritage, and the massive stone houses that form historic mainstreets and stud the remote townlands are even more eloquent.

These noble buildings, each with its own coat of arms, and belonging often to quite ordinary families, bear witness, so say the nationalists, to the “universal nobility” conceded to the Basques by Navarran and Castillian kings. It is likely these kings were motivated more by a desire to undermine the local warlords than to acknowledge a precocious Basque democracy, but don’t say that too loudly here.

In case you wonder where you are, the road signs as you enter each hamlet on the Spanish side of the border bear the legend Euskal Herria (Land of the Basques) above the village name.

This is a curious thing to do. We do not, after all, put “Ireland” on the road signs for Tinahely or Baltinglass. The signs in the Baztan valley are a quiet gesture of defiance by the local municipalities to the province’s powerful autonomous government. A large majority of Navarrans believe Baztan is in Spain. Identity is a perennial quarrel in the parliament in Pamplona.

Such gestures are common in Spanish Navarre’s northern Pyrenean valleys, where the Basque language, Euskera, is still the common means of communication. Ez denok gaude (All of us are not here) proclaims a banner on the town hall balcony in nearby Lesaka, as the rockets announcing the opening of the village’s San Fermín fiestas are fired. The reference is to local prisoners dispersed in jails far from home, alleged or actual members of the Basque terrorist group Eta.

Yet the fiesta itself proceeds in absolute normality – if that phrase can be applied to such an exuberantly joyous event – with less visible police presence than an average Saturday night in any Irish town would attract.

Down on the coast in San Sebastián, and now in the self-governing tri-provincial region known as the Basque Autonomous Community, there is a similar juxtaposition of rebellious gestures and normal, indeed very prosperous, daily life.

On a Friday evening, I am enjoying excellent pintxos and a glass of beer with an academic friend. He grew up in a village alongside an Eta active service unit, and has written about the long-running Basque conflict with extraordinary insight.

Strolling through the old part of the town to the next bar, as one does, we pause to allow the Friday evening demonstration of prisoners’ relatives pass us by in the narrow street. It is preceded by a car playing funereal music. My friend exchanges greetings with acquaintances in the march. The marchers’ faces are resigned, dignified, and very tired.

Walking on, my friend concurs with what I have heard from everyone I spoke to on this trip: Eta’s war is over, and its political allies are – at long last – telling the group it is has no future but dissolution. Of course, a few die-hards with explosives and pistols can still do terrible damage. But the consensus for an end to violence has never been stronger.

It should be instructive to Basque nationalists that, at the same weekend, perhaps a million Catalans marched – peacefully – in Barcelona, proclaiming their distinct national identity and – in many cases – their desire for self-determination. All parties in Catalonia participated, including the state-wide Socialist Party, with the single exception of the stridently right-wing Partido Popular. The debate about the identity of the Spanish state is clearly still a very live issue.

A similarly themed march in San Sebastián could not even unite all the radical Basque nationalist forces, and only attracted a few thousand people.

For far too many years, Eta has portrayed itself as the “vanguard” of a Basque struggle for independence. Today, it is more evident than ever that all it has achieved under democracy is to lead young Basques into a cul-de-sac littered with car bombs and corpses, and ending in a grave or a prison cell.

Only when its guns finally fall silent will the Basque people have a real chance, like the Catalans, to freely negotiate their own future – assuming democrats in Madrid are prepared to listen.