ETA has dissolved – can Europe step up to the separatism challenge?

This is a quiet, historic moment for Spain but the country is still far from genuine reconciliation and unity

BY Isabel Woodford   /  6 May 2018

For most of us, the name Jesus Ulayar will have little if any resonance. But on the Iberian Peninsula, he symbolises a bridge between two worlds; between the time before ETA and what followed.

On a cool January evening in 1979, Mr Ulayar was struck down by four fatal gunshots as he entered his family home with his thirteen year old son – targeted by Basque separatists as the former mayor of a small town in Pamplona. Ulayar’s assassination was an emotive moment in ETA’s sixty years of protracted violence – an armed campaign which came to an official and understated end last week.

To understand Spain’s history with ETA, just think 1970s Northern Ireland, and the Troubles. ETA (like the IRA) used terrorism as their weapon of choice to push for Basque independence against the nation it saw as its coloniser, sparked by the repression of the Franco years.

Born in the Pyrenees, the group coordinated 850 deaths – most of those killed were entirely innocent – and countless billions of pounds of damage. A nation was left reeling from years of internal conflict. That’s what Spain will reflect on this week as ETA announced its dismantlement and its remaining members relinquished their arsenal.

Ironically, ETA’s dissolution on Wednesday last week was a sombre, discrete affair. There was no fanfare, no photo opportunities with pumped up politicians shaking hands taking their moment of glory (albeit deserved). That was reserved for 2011, when the Basque separatists agreed to stop using violence, a pledge which they have since stuck to.

But last Wednesday’s declaration is nonetheless an important move, not least because it will allow bureaucrats to shift from peace negotiations to a process of political rebuilding. Calls for resources to be centred on victims’ justice schemes have begun and Madrid has promised to reignite the democratic stage in the Basque region. So that’s it for ETA, they’re gone – we think – for good.

For Spain, a long process of reconciliation and diplomatic coordination awaits. This is the aspect that is so often neglected in a peace process, which is deemed to reach its pinnacle after the euphoria of a ceasefire – including in Northern Ireland. The limited attention span of the mediators’ limited attention span here does not just fall short of an idealist’s vision of peace, but also that of a democrat’s and an economist’s, with post-conflict divides seeing individuals boycott businesses and politicians alike for their affiliations with the opposing side.

In Spain, the social wounds inflicted by ETA’s years of violence are still visible – from Pamplona to Barcelona – a city now fighting its own independence struggle but nonetheless the target of ETA’s most lethal bombing in the 80s. The names of ETA’s victims are still chanted in the street. Families like Ulayar’s are still healing a generation later, and calls for their perpetrators to be brought to justice are rife. Civil groups have even rejected the group’s public apology, published last month, in which it conceded its “direct responsibility” for the swathe of irreconcilable damage and “disproportionate suffering.” ETA has not been forgiven so easily, and the public is looking for reassurance that “peace” will not be synonymous with unaddressed grievances.

Enter the EU. No stranger to armed conflict, Europe now has a part to play in helping to minimise the aftermath of the rise of yet another bloody separatist movement. The independence taboo has not disappeared for the Basques; worse, it has multiplied in the South of the country, marked by Catalonia’s impromptu “liberation” vote last year.

Spain has been left fighting a two-pronged war of words with little else than a retired Gordon Brown supporting them. If Europe wants to prove its political, conciliatory, and unifying potential, this is it. The Euro and Spain’s fragile political establishment could depend on it. At the very least, we should hope for a better reconciliation job than that which ensued after the Good Friday Agreement; perhaps an EU-regulated healing process if you like.

Finally, I am no nationalist, but I encourage you to visit the Basque country this summer. Even if your GCSE Spanish skills are of little use amongst its most devout resident, who’ll respond in the local Euskera, it is an opportunity to witness a historic moment of recovery amid good wine, great food, and (generally) warm hosts. Most importantly, the region is unprecedently safe today as the separatists move exclusively to the parliamentary podium. Bilbao, San Sebastian, Vitoria, and indeed Spain are in need of an outsider’s embrace. It is our responsibility to be a part of this moment of peace.


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