Madrid lacks imagination to facilitate Basque identity even post-Eta

As group dissolves amid apologies, Partido Popular refuses to relocate jailed

Graffiti reading “ETA, thanks a lot, the people with you”in Basque village of Hernani. Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty

Graffiti reading “ETA, thanks a lot, the people with you”in Basque village of Hernani. Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty

 

A modest ceremony was held on Monday in the Basque town of Andaoin to celebrate the memory of the journalist José Luis López de Lacalle. He was killed by the pro-independence group Eta exactly 18 years ago, after eating his breakfast in a cafe near his home.

Modest, but significant, because this is the first time a victim of Eta has been remembered in public since the group announced its total dissolution last week. On previous anniversaries, his family, friends and colleagues were all too aware that simply gathering to commemorate him attracted hostile and potentially lethal attention.

Moreover, López de Lacalle’s personal political history illustrates the grim transformation of Eta. The group was created in opposition to the military dictatorship of General Franco in the 1960s. But it morphed into an organisation that was itself both ultra-militarist and highly authoritarian, after Spain became a democracy in the late 1970s.

In his youth, López de Lacalle had also fought against the Franco dictatorship, but chose the non-violent strategies espoused by the Communist Party. This choice did not protect him from the violence of the regime. Like many Basque opposition figures, he was detained and brutally tortured by a police inspector notorious for physical abuses, Melitón Manzanas.

In 1968, Eta shot Manzanas, triggering a massive wave of brutal police repression across the Basque Country. This was exactly what Eta needed to recruit a new generation of militants.

López de Lacalle would not have approved of the killing, but like many democrats he might not have shed too many tears over Manzanas’s death. He could hardly have imagined, however, that Eta would embrace ever more indiscriminate terrorism under democracy, nor that in the 1990s they would begin to kill unarmed critics like himself.

Taboo question

So Eta’s dissolution brings a very painful chapter in Basque and Spanish history to a final close. This closure had been expected since Eta’s permanent ceasefire in 2011; what is surprising is that Eta’s role in this chapter of history now appears to be under very critical scrutiny by its own supporters.

Eta’s dissolution brings a very painful chapter in Basque and Spanish history to a final close. This closure had been expected since Eta’s permanent ceasefire in 2011

Even among the last scattered remnants of Eta itself, a question is being asked that would have been utterly taboo in Basque radical nationalist circles a decade ago. Has all of the killing, maiming and social division the group has inflicted, and all of the killing, torture, imprisonment and exile its members and supporters have also suffered, been of any service at all to the cause it was created to serve?

There is a strong echo of this question in the unprecedented apology that the group offered to all its victims in the week before its dissolution:

“Eta acknowledges its direct responsibility for this harm and states that none of this should have ever taken place and it should have not continued as long as it has.”

This week in Andaoin’s neighbouring town of Hernani, long an Eta stronghold, I saw freshly painted slogans saying “Eta Ezkerrik Asko” (Thank you, Eta). But they seem more a last gasp to save the group some dignity than a reflection of the popular mood. There appears to be no prospect of a “dissident Eta” emerging in the foreseeable future.

Graffiti reading “Eta, thanks” on wall two days after the militant Basque separatists announced their dissolution, in Bilbao. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters
Graffiti reading “Eta, thanks” on wall two days after the militant Basque separatists announced their dissolution, in Bilbao. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

The group’s disappearance does not, however, signal the evaporation of pro-independence Basque nationalism. On the contrary, radical parties campaigning peacefully for a Basque state have quadrupled their support in this century, during the very period when Basque tolerance for Eta’s terrorist strategy plummeted. And a substantial section of the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), currently governing the Basque autonomous region, is also prone to pro-independence sentiment.

Curiously, the PNV’s leader and Basque first minister, the very pragmatic Iñigo Urkullu, has chosen this moment to support the budget proposals of the minority government in Madrid, in the hands of the very conservative and deeply Spanish nationalist Partido Popular (PP).

Human rights

He appears to have done this in the hope of persuading the PP to liberalise the harsh penal regime imposed on Eta’s remaining 200-plus prisoners, who have not benefited in the least from Eta’s ceasefire and disbanding. Their dispersal to distant jails is criticised by human rights groups as excessively punitive not only on the prisoners but on their families. So a simple first step, requiring no legislation, would be to bring them back to prisons in the Basque Country.

The PP, however, appears determined not to yield an inch on the prisoner issue, knowing that its hard line is popular with its supporters elsewhere in Spain, and that any concession will be portrayed as “betrayal of the victims” by its new conservative and Spanish nationalist rivals, Ciudadanos.

The PP appears determined not to yield an inch on the prisoner issue, knowing its hard line is popular with its supporters elsewhere in Spain, and that any concession will be portrayed as 'betrayal of the victims'

Instead, the PP argues that Eta’s dissolution is not enough, and that its former leaders must now account for several hundred unsolved killings.

For many Basques, this demand is not only unrealistic. It also smacks of hypocrisy, coming from a party whose founder was a leading member of the Franco regime. The PP has stubbornly resisted all attempts to establish responsibility for the many thousands of killings carried out by the dictatorship. It has even locally resisted attempts to exhume and identify the graves of Franco’s victims.

Certainly, there is little sign in Madrid of either the generosity or the imagination to engage with the now entirely peaceful, if contentious, moves towards independence in Catalonia, and whatever shape such a movement may now take in a peaceful Basque Country. Indeed, some conservatives seem to see the new scenario as more threatening than Eta’s terrorist campaign.

This lack of vision may be tragic, because many observers believe that a resolution could be reached in both regions through the legitimisation of referendums on independence. In each case, the pro-independence argument would almost certainly lose, but its advocates could no longer claim their electorate had not been given a free choice.

Why, then, does Spain not reform its constitution to facilitate this option? The answer must be sought in the nature of Spanish nationalism, often at least as visceral as its Basque and Catalan analogues, and apparently incapable of understanding the real depth of the Basque and Catalan senses of distinct national identity.

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