Wednesday, October 19, 2011
A Good News Day
The International Group
left to right: Jonathan Powell, mise, Bertie, Kofi Annan, Gro Harland Bruntland, Pierre Joxe.
Monday was a busy day and hopefully a significant one for the people of the Basque country and Spain. It started with a plane flight to Bilbao from Dublin. This blog and a Sinn Féin delegation met up with Bertie Ahern and his colleagues in Dublin Airport, and joined Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, on board a small plane bound for the Basque country.
We were on our way to a conference in San Sebastian in Euskadi entitled; ‘International conference to promote the resolution of the conflict in the Basque County’. The event had been organised by a range of groups, including the Basque Citizen Network for Agreement and Consultation, Lokarri, the International Contact Group (GIC) led by South African lawyer Brian Currin, and four other international foundations.
We were due to join up with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan; Pierre Joxe, former French Defense and Interior Minister; and Gro Harland Bruntland, a former Norwegian Prime Minister.
The flight took about two hours and provided Bertie, Jonathan and this blog with an opportunity to talk about the conference.
The format was straightforward. Each of the six international participants would make a contribution on the issue of conflict resolution, its difficulties and hopes.
A range of trade union, business, community and political representatives from the Basque country would then make short presentations. After which the international guests would retire to discuss and agree a ‘Declaration’ which would set out our view of how the process of peace in the Basque country could be advanced.
This blog has been in the Basque country many times in recent years. There is a long affinity between Irish people and the people of France and Spain and the Basque country.
Sinn Féin’s efforts to assist in building a peace process there go back to the Good Friday Agreement. In that time there have been moments of great hope but also of despair as the opportunity for peace suffered setbacks.
I was in the Basque country in June 2006 after ETA called a cessation. There was great excitement and anticipation. The collapse of the cessation at the end of that year was a disappointment to many.
Since then Sinn Féin has continued to work closely with our Basque friends in Batasuna – which is currently banned – and others, in an effort to inject new momentum into a peace process that is stalled.
In the last two years we have seen the formation of Abertzale Left, which includes Batasuna, and the adoption in February 2010 of a new political strategy for progress.
The example of the Irish peace process is clear in this strategy which commits Abertzale Left to using ‘exclusively political and democratic means’ to advance its political objectives. It seeks to advance political change ‘in a complete absence of violence and without interference’ and ‘conducted in accordance with the Mitchell Principles.’ And its political goal is achieve a ‘stable and lasting peace in the Basque country’.
Subsequently, ETA called a ceasefire in September 2010 and last month saw the establishment of the ‘International Commission of Verification of Ceasefire in the Basque County’- CIV.
So, Monday’s initiative in San Sebastian is rooted in a lot of hard work and effort and some progress. There was and is an expectation that Monday’s conference could see a step change in the situation.
That was certainly the expectation among those taking part in the conference in the Ghandi room, in the San Sebastian Peace House, and among the ranks of journalists who were covering it.
In my contribution to the conference I recalled that for many the conflict in Ireland, rooted in centuries of war and division and violence, had seemed intractable. Every generation had known war – and between the cycles of violence there was the despair of oppression and discrimination, of instability and institutional violence. The cycle seemed destined to continue into a depressing future.
But the Irish peace process demonstrated that with imagination and dialogue and a commitment to achieve peace it is possible to rewrite the script.
This blog said: “Violence usually occurs when people believe that there is no alternative. Transforming a situation from conflict to peace requires therefore that an alternative is created.”
Making peace is hugely challenging and enormously difficult. It demands that we seek to understand what motivates, what inspires, what drives their opponent. Ultimately, as Madiba - Nelson Mandela - said, we have to make friends with our enemy.
Each conflict is different but in the course of our efforts Irish republicans have learned that there are general principles of peace making, methods of conflict resolution, that can be applied elsewhere and which can help end conflict if applied properly.
These elements include; dialogue; tackling the causes which lie at the heart of the conflict; a good faith engagement by all sides; an inclusive process – with all parties treated as equals and mandates respected; all issues must be on the agenda; there can be no pre-conditions; no vetoes; and no attempt to pre-determine the outcome, or preclude any outcome and there should be time frames.
Most importantly, participants must stay focused and be prepared to take risks and engage in initiatives and confidence building measures.
But if there is a starting point it must be dialogue. I emphasized this again and again. This is the foundation upon which any progress will be built.
Confidence building measures are also crucial. In Ireland this meant, among other things improving conditions for prisoners, including moving those who were in England closer to their homes in Ireland. It meant demilitarizing the environment and ending the use of emergency laws and repression, a new beginning to policing and the release of political prisoners.
It also meant respecting and acknowledging the democratic rights of all political parties and treating them as equals. At a time when Batasuna is banned and leaders like Arnaldo Otegi, who is totally committed in my view to peace, are imprisoned, the use of confidence building measures by the Spanish state is very important.
Going out to meet the media
At the end of our four hours of deliberation the international delegation presented our ‘Declaration’. We first read it to the conference and then went outside to the grounds of the Peace House where the media were camped.
The ‘Declaration’ said that we believed it is possible to end the last armed confrontation in Europe. We set out a five point proposal, which included calling on ETA to make a definitive declaration to end all armed actions. We urged the French and Spanish governments to respond positively and to agree to talks.
My colleagues and I said that we are willing to form a committee to follow up on our recommendations.
There was applause from the media and with that it was over. We said our goodbyes and got back into our cars for the return high speed journey to Bilbao airport.
I think it was a good days work. As we made our way home there was good news from another front. Tuesday saw the release of 477 Palestinian prisoners and of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, with another 550 Palestinian prisoners due to be released next month. This is a welcome development. It came clearly after talks involving the Netanyahu government and Hamas. It’s wonderful what happens when dialogue begins.