22 February 2007 Edition
International: Batasuna representatives' whirlwind Irish visit
Irish audiences here desire for genuine Basque peace process
BY EOIN Ó BROIN
There was something curious about the decision of the Spanish national court to allow Batasuna’s leader Arnaldo Otegi and party colleague Pernando Barrena to visit Ireland last week.
Following the ETA ceasefire announcement of March last year, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams formally invited Otegi to visit Ireland. The purpose of the invitation was to provide Batasuna with an opportunity to learn about recent developments in the Irish peace process from a broad range of participants while at the same time outlining their view of the emerging process in their own country.
That the Spanish National Court saw fit to refuse Otegi permission to leave the country was an early sign that the process there was going to be a difficult one. Indeed only weeks after the cessation announcement the same court had arrested and indicted the Basque politician on spurious grounds. These two actions were the start of the National Courts reactionary intervention into a process that was only getting started.
Little wonder that, by August it was running into such a crisis.
Following the ETA bombing of Madrid airport in December, Sinn Féin again issued an inv invitation to Otegi to visit Ireland. The party’s logic was simple. The Irish process collapsed in 1996 in similar circumstances. John Major’s refusal to honour commitments made in previous negotiations supported by foot dragging from Bruton’s ‘rainbow coalition’ undermined the conditions that brought the IRA’s 1994 cessation into being.
Again Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams invited Otegi to travel to Ireland and much to everyone’s surprise the Spanish National Court granted permission for a three-day visit. Clearly the Spanish court preferred the idea of Otegi traveling abroad when the process was in crisis.
And so Otegi and Barrena traveled to Ireland from Sunday, 11 February through to Wednesday 14 February.
It was a fast paced two-day series of intense meetings and media engagements. For Batasuna the aim was to discuss with Irish nationalists and unionists in Belfast and Dublin their take on the development of the Irish process.
On Monday the delegation met with SDLP MLA Alban McGuinness at the SDLP HQ in South Belfast. The meeting was cordial and constructive.
It was then on to Sinn Féin offices on the Falls Road for a detailed briefing with Gerry Adams, Alex Maskey and Sue Ramsey. Otegi outlined their concerns with regard to the failure of the Zapatero government to live up to their commitments reached with ETA in December 2004. He reiterated his belief that the only way forward was through dialogue. Indeed he reminded those present that following the Madrid bombing Batasuna had called on all parties, including the Spanish government and ETA, to return to the commitments made in 2004. Specifically this required Spanish premier Jose Luis Zapatero to end the criminalisation of Batasuna, open the way to all party talks and commit himself to respect the outcome of those talks. In turn ETA should reinstate its ceasefire.
The clear message from Batasuna’s meeting with the Sinn Féin team was that they were committed to a conflict resolution process, wanted to see both ETA and Zapatero return to the letter of the 2004 agreement and were committed to resolving the causes of conflict through dialogue.
As the meeting came to an end a gaggle of journalists and photographers gathered outside the Sinn Féin office eager to hear the outcome of the meeting. The press conference moved through Irish, English, Spanish and Basque as the assembled politicians spoke to media from Ireland, Spain and the Basque Country.
Meeting with unionists
On Monday evening the Batasuna delegation were hosted by the Rev Harold Good at the Healing Through Rembering offices in Belfast city centre. The meeting was attended by a cross section of pro-Agreement unionists including senior members of the UUP, former members of the RUC and UVF and staff from the Healing project. After the meeting Otegi described the engagements as ‘interesting’ and ‘insightful’. He also lamented the absence of voices such as these from within Spanish politics or civil society.
The delegation finished off the first day of engagements with a small public meeting in the Wolfe Tone Room at the Roddy McCorley Club in West Belfast. Chaired by Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey and translated by former International Department chief Pat Rice, the meeting dealt with a wide range of issues including the recent collapse of the Basque peace process; the situation of hunger striker Inaki de Juana; the development of the Basque language; and Otegi’s desire to see a Basque embassy in Belfast. Interestingly a number of journalists from Spanish newspapers traveled from Spain and London to attend the event.
Tuesday brought the delegation to Dublin for a series of private meetings with French and Spanish journalists. These were followed by a detailed meeting with former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. The former Fianna Fáil leader, who played a crucial role at the early stages of the Irish process, has been appointed by the leader of the Basque parliament Ibarretxe to head up a group of international advisors to assist the rebuilding of the Basque process.
The two-day trip came to an end on Tuesday night at a packed public meeting in the Teachers Club. A mixed Irish and Basque audience ensured that the meeting was truly pluri-lingual - Irish and English mixed with Spanish and Basque throughout. The meeting emphasised Batasuna’s desire to secure a peace process on the basis of respect for the Basques’ right to self-determination.
Speaking to this writer at the end of two busy days of engagements Otegi expressed his belief that the long-standing political friendship between Sinn Féin and Batasuna should continue, as both movements had much to learn from each other.