Last week, prisoners belonging to the defunct Basque terror group Eta issued a remarkable plea to their supporters. They asked them to stop holding public events to celebrate the homecomings of their comrades who are released from jail.
In their statement, the prisoners acknowledged that “there are people who have honestly expressed that they feel pain with the public [celebrations] . . . They are people hurt by the actions of our past militancy and we understand that they may feel pain.”
In October, Arnaldo Otegi, leader of the party that used to be Eta’s political wing (and thus the nearest Basque equivalent of Mary Lou McDonald) addressed those bereaved and maimed by its violence: “We want to express to them our sorrow and pain for the suffering they endured. We feel their pain, and that sincere feeling leads us to affirm that it should never have happened, that no one could be satisfied with what happened, and that it should not have lasted as long as it did.”
As Europe's most formidable and resilient nationalist terror machines, each took enormous moral comfort from the existence and actions of the other
All of which raises obvious questions for Ireland. If former Eta militants who are still in prison can have the grace to acknowledge that celebrating them as heroes is an affront to their victims, why can’t the former IRA do likewise?
And if Eta’s political heirs can openly recognise that their long killing spree should not have happened, why can Sinn Féin still not say the same thing?
Eta and the IRA were, for more than a quarter of a century, blood brothers. As Europe’s most formidable and resilient nationalist terror machines, each took enormous moral comfort from the existence and actions of the other.
Ruairí Ó Bradáigh, then president of Sinn Féin, made several visits to the Basque country in the 1970s. During the same period, Eta representatives began to attend and speak at Sinn Féin’s ardfheiseanna.
In February 2000, Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin told the researcher Agnès Maillot of the “long-standing relationship and a friendship between the two movements”. These relationships certainly included co-operation between the movements’ armed wings. As early as 1974, an Eta spokesman told the German newspaper Der Spiegel that his group had “very good relations with the IRA”.
Later, it was through Eta that the IRA began its infamous entanglement with FARC in Columbia. But this sense of comradeship probably mattered more in moral than in practical ways. If you’re slaughtering your fellow countrymen year after year, and claiming the right to impose the death penalty on all those who disagree with you, it is good to have company.
The knowledge that someone else is doing the same thing for similar reasons acts as an emotional shield, deflecting the feelings of self-disgust and futility that must plague anyone who is not a psychopath.
But from the late 1990s onwards, the relationship took on a different character. Sinn Féin and the IRA showed Eta and its political wing Batasuna a way out of the moral swamp.
In September 1998, less than six months after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Eta declared its first ceasefire. Gerry Adams was given a hero's welcome in Bilbao, paraded through the streets as crowds waved the Irish tricolour and the Basque flag.
Many of those victims will never accept such expressions as meaningful or adequate. That is their right
Sinn Féin played a very constructive role in Eta's gradual movement towards ending its campaign. It hosted several fact-finding missions from the Basque country. One of its most prominent visitors was Arnaldo Otegi, who issued that recent statement of remorse.
But Otegi and his comrades have now gone much further than Sinn Féin has ever managed. They have accepted that they should never have done what they did, and that they should have stopped doing it much earlier. They have also done something to try to stop the infliction of further pain on their victims.
Asking people in their home towns and villages to end public celebrations of Eta militants is an act of basic decency. It puts the feelings of the bereaved before those of the perpetrators. Many of those victims will never accept such expressions as meaningful or adequate. That is their right. But for a society struggling to deal with the legacy of violent conflict, those gestures and those words matter greatly. And they would matter greatly in Ireland now.
It would be a real help to everyone if Mary Lou McDonald would say, formally and on behalf of Sinn Féin, that the IRA’s bombings and assassinations “should never have happened, that no one could be satisfied with what happened, and that it should not have lasted as long as it did”.
It would help too if the local celebrations of killers were, as the Eta prisoners have requested of their supporters, turned into discreet and private affairs, shaped around the need to stop inflicting further suffering on the victims and survivors. These would be acts of tact and grace, stemming, if not from shame, at least from genuine sorrow.
They would show some willingness to accept, after all these years, responsibility for pain. If you want to be the government, that is what you must learn to do: accept responsibility. Sinn Féin has yet to say or show, not just that it understands sorrow and pain, but that it genuinely shares them.