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15 June 2006 Edition

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Adams in Spain and Basque country: A desire and a will to achieve peace

Basque Process Moving Forward

BY EOIN Ó BROIN

For the last 12 months, Spanish state politics has been dominated by two issues- the proposed reform of the Catalan statute of autonomy and the Basque conflict.

As Gerry Adams set off from Dublin on a three-day tour of Bilbao, Madrid and Barcelona, Catalan political parties were in full campaigning mode as they prepare for the 18 June referendum on the statute, while Basque parties were working publicly and privately to build a successful conflict resolution process.

As always the government and opposition parties in Madrid were never far away, taking oppositie sides on both sets of issues, in what is fast becoming the most contentious period in Socialist Party-Popular Party relations since the death of Franco.

The purpose of Gerry Adams' visit to the Spanish state was threefold: Firstly to meet with and listen to the main political parties in the Basque Country. Secondly to speak at an event organised by the Madrid-based think tank, the New Economic Forum. And finally in Barcelona, to speak at the University of Catalonia and to accepct an international award from the cultural rights NGO, CIEMEN.

Basque Country

In the Basque Country, the Sinn Féin President met with the leaders of Batasuna, the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) and, for the first time, the Basque Socialist Party (PSE). Each party provided an update on the current political situation, offering their own analysis of the origins of and solutions to the conflict.

During a meeting at the Hotel Abando, Batasuna were upbeat about the potential for political progress. Despite the ongoing political and legal repression at the hands of the National Court judge Gran-Marlaska, the mood of the meeting was positive and forward looking. Relations with the Socialist Party were improving and progress towards multi-party talks was being made.

Speaking at a press conference, which took place shortly after the Sinn Féin delegation arrived in Bilbao, Batasuna spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi outlined the importance of the Irish example for the emerging Basque peace process. Central to that example, he argued, was the issue of self-determination.

Gerry Adams welcomed the decision by the Basque Socialist Party leader Patxi Lopez earlier in the same week to open direct discussions with Batasuna. The Sinn Féin President also emphasised the need for people to become accustomed to the idea that Batasuna will be unbanned.

The media were interested in Sinn Féin's view of the recent decision by the Popular Party in Madrid to break all official relations with the governing Socialist Party if they opened talks with ETA. While not responding directly, Adams made it clear that "peace is more important than narrow party or electoral interests".

From the Hotel Abando Adams walked across the square to the PNV's national office, situated in the grandiose Sabino Etxea, named after the party's founder. The meeting with party leader Jon Juso Imaz was cordial, friendly even, and he outlined their own hopes for political progress. Imaz welcomed the recently announced intention of the Spanish President of Government Jose Luiz Zapatero to seek direct negotiations with ETA. Equally the PNV leader was hopeful that all party talks would commence by the autumn.

Activities in the Basque Country came to an end the following morning as the Sinn Féin team met Patxi Lopez Jesus Eguiguren of the Basque Socialist Party. In what was the first encounter with the PSE, Lopez and Eguiguren outlined the need for a Basque solution to the conflict and while interested in Ireland downplayed any comparison between the two conflicts.

What was clear from all three meetings was that both the political will and determination existed to find a solution to the Basque conflict. Batasuna, the PNV and PSE, despite their deep seated political differences were all clear about the need for dialogue in order to build effective conflict resolution.

Madrid

While consensus, even if only in private, appeared to be the order of the day in the Basque Country, Madrid was another story altogether. Political relations between the Socialist government and Conservative opposition reflected an equally polarised public. Every television show on every channel, whether politics, sport or celebrity was asking the same question: "What do you think of Zapatero's intention to open talks with ETA?"

Invited by the Madrid-based bi-partisan New Economic Forum think tank , to discuss the Irish peace process at a closed dinner, the Sinn Féin leader encountered this division first hand.

Speaking at a packed press conference at the Ritz Hotel, at which over 60 news agencies attended, Gerry Adams told the assembled crowd that "Spain and the Basque Country have an historic opportunity to resolve the causes of conflict". He argued that "such a process was too important to be left to the politicians", and urged all, including the press, to play their part.

Once again the media were interested in the Sinn Féin leader's reaction to the Popular Party's hardline stance, and asked about the issues of victims and political prisoners. Adams told journalists that while such issues needed to be dealt with carefully and with great sensitivity, they should not be used by any political party to block progress.

The New Economic Forum dinner gave Madrid-based politicians, business people, media directors and profesionals from the judiciary an opportunity to outline their views of the emerging situation in addition to asking detailed questions about all aspects of the Irish peace process. At the dinner's conclusion Adams was presented with Honorary Membership of the Forum.

Barcelona

The final day of the trip was spent in Barcelona. The Left Republicans of Catalonia (ERC) took a break from their campaign against the proposed statute of autonomy for Catalonia to host a public meeting on the issue of self-determination. Following a brief history of Britain's colonial involvement in Irish affairs and the last 30 years of conflict and conflict resolution, the Sinn Féin President outlined the centrality of self-determination in the republican conception of rights. ERC president Josep Lluis Carod-Rivera gave Catalonia's own history of struggle and argued that voting against the Catalan statute was the best way of expressing self-determination in the present context.

From the University of Catalonia to the historic 1898 Hotel, where Gerry Adams was awarded an international award by the Catalan cultural and minority rights organisation CIEMEN. The award given annually, acknowledged an individual's contribution to the promotion and protection of cultural, human and social rights.

The three days in Barcelona, Madrid and Bilbao were busy, absorbing, informative and uplifting. While great difficulties remain in the Basque Country, and great uncertainty continues to affect politics in Madrid, the Sinn Féin delegation was left in little doubt that there was both a desire for peace and a political will to achieve it.

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