Supporting the Basque peace process

Last Sunday’s elections ran to form with the return to power of the People’s Party ushering in a new prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. Just as the momentous events of the European financial crisis have helped the PP back to power, so there were seismic events of an entirely different kind that contributed to the PP’s fall from office back in 2004. The attempts of the then prime minister, José María Aznar, to blame the Madrid bombings on ETA and the subsequent political backlash serve as a timely reminder of the political risk that surrounds this ongoing life and death dispute.

The challenges facing the incoming government in 2011 are arguably even greater than those faced in 2004 and the circumstances have changed significantly. But with these challenges come opportunities, including the rare moment to secure a lasting peace. The response of the new prime minister will be key to ensuring this opportunity is seized.

The roots of the new hope lie in a long-running process that culminated in an international conference for promoting the resolution of conflict in the Basque country at Donostia-San Sebastian on 17 October. The conference, which involved several high profile international participants, including Kofi Annan, Bertie Ahern, Jonathan Powell, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Pierre Joxe and Gerry Adams, led to the announcement a few days later by ETA of a ‘definitive cessation of its armed activity’.

As all experienced negotiators can tell you, the peace process is precisely that – a process – rather than a single event. The new government and Spanish parliament now needs to consider how best to shape their engagement with the next stages of the process.

First of all, it is important to recognise the significance of these momentous developments.  Over 800 people have died at the hands of ETA over the 40-year conflict, including key government members. While ETA’s infrastructure has undoubtedly been weakened by consistent government crackdowns, it still maintains sizeable support in its heartlands and, just as there have been in other peace processes, there will undoubtedly be resistance to the end of the armed conflict.  It is also notable that the announcement does not include the dissolution of ETA, though members have since indicated that this on their agenda.

It is timely therefore to remember some of the fundamental principles of effective negotiation, laid out by William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  The first principle is to adopt a joint problem-solving approach to negotiating together. As we saw in Northern Ireland, the laying down of arms is critical to that step as few, if any, governments are willing to enter into public negotiations with groups still actively involved in violence. We have reached that step and so the new government now has the opportunity to enter into discussions from a position of strength borne out of a clear democratic mandate.

Another key principle is the development of an alternative based on a principled understanding of each party’s interests rather than rigid positions. Clearly all parties need to have a greater interest in achieving peace than reverting to conflict.

That was the rationale when Gerry Adams recently observed that ‘we worked on the assumption and logic that those serious people who take up armed action or who defend armed actions do so because they believe there is no alternative, so we started to work at whether an alternative could be put together in the Basque country’.

The promise of democracy should be that peace is always a more compelling option than violence. Every step along the pathway towards it needs to visible and attractive.  Competing narratives of surrender and victory add little to help this journey.

The role to be played here by the international community is critical.  By bringing parties together who have achieved their own peace after decades and even centuries of conflict, there are opportunities to learn from the experience of peace processes elsewhere to develop options for the mutual gain of all parties rather than destructive horse trading.

So this poses the question about how the Spanish and French governments can move towards a negotiated settlement for life after 40 years of conflict. Given this history, it is completely understandable that many will be deeply sceptical about the recent announcements. Positions have already been staked out in relation to ETA, but a vision focused on underlying and common interests, could allow direct engagement with those who brought the alternative forward.

The key to resolving this lies in confidence building measures. We know from our experiences in Northern Ireland that these are not always straightforward, and can put pressure on all parties to revert to old positions. If it has not already done so, ETA must realise that the October declaration is just a milestone – albeit an important one – and that this is an ongoing process. They will need to make ongoing and practical demonstrations of commitment. In Northern Ireland, there were many elements to this, most notably the decommissioning of weapons as part of a staged process of negotiation.

Underpinning all of this must be strong commitments by all sides to ongoing peaceful processes, the rule of law and primacy of democracy. Working together, and with the support of the international community, there is now an opportunity to achieve lasting peace for the first time in generations.

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George Howarth MP was a minister in Northern Ireland between 1999 and 2001 during the implementation of the Good Friday agreement

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Photo: Francisco Martins

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