Thursday saw the launch of the Free Arnaldo Otegi and Bring Basque Political Prisoners Home campaign in Ireland.
The event took place in Leinster House and was jointly sponsored by myself; Maureen O’Sullivan TD; Finian McGrath TD and involved speakers including Robert Ballagh, Artist and social justice campaigner; Urko Airtza, Basque Senator and human rights lawyer; Pablo Vicente, and Fermin Muguruza, famous Basque musician.
On my own behalf and on behalf of Sinn Féin, I extended solidarity greetings from the event to Arnaldo. I also warmly welcomed today's initiative and pledged Sinn Féin's full support.
Sinn Féin and the Basque people have a long history of solidarity in struggle. I and other Sinn Féin leaders have been active in travelling to the Basque country in support of efforts to achieve a peace process and agreement.
Regrettably the dialogue for peace has been largely one-sided. The people of the Basque country, represented by a range of political parties and civic organisations, have been involved in recent years in a substantial dialogue around building a peace process. Their objective has been to bring an end to violence while creating the conditions for democratic and peaceful political change, including independence.
They took as their model the Irish peace process and the South African model. The strategy that has emerged, based largely on language and principles agreed here, commits Basque activists to using ‘exclusively political and democratic means’ to advance their 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 to achieve a ‘stable and lasting peace in the Basque country’.
The key to making any progress is dialogue. The Spanish government needs to talk. Thus far it has refused. This runs entirely counter to Nelson Mandela’s oft quoted mantra that to make peace we have to make friends with our enemy. That cannot be done in the absence of a dialogue. It cannot be done in the absence of respect for the rights of citizens to vote for elected representatives of their choice.
In this context the continued imprisonment of Arnaldo Otegi (Secretary General of SORTU) makes no sense and is deeply unhelpful. In the course of recent years I have met Arnaldo here and in the Basque country. I support his efforts and those of the Basque independence parties to construct a peaceful and democratic resolution to the conflict in the Basque Country.
Arnaldo is a courageous and visionary leader who has taken real risks for peace and despite speaking many years in prison on spurious charges he has never faltered from promoting the path of peace.
The policy of dispersal of Basque prisoners from prisons close to their families is not helpful to the peace process. It mirrors the policy of ‘ghosting’ that was regularly used against Irish republican prisoners held in Britain. Families would make the difficult journey to the north of England for a visit with a loved one only to be told that they were moved the previous day to a prison in London. This policy, which has no security dimension to it, was simply about hurting the families and demoralizing the prisoners. So too with Basque prisoners.
It is also a truism of every peace process I know of that the release of prisoners was an indispensable part of building confidence. Invariably the prisoners themselves played a crucial role in assisting the peace.
The refusal of the Spanish government to engage in dialogue, the continued imprisonment of Arnaldo Otegi and its punitive regime against Basque prisoners, are evidence of a government reluctant to embrace the potential for peace.
The Spanish Prime Minister has an opportunity to take a step change in advance of elections in December by releasing Arnaldo Otegi, and ending its reprehensible dispersal policy and allow Basque political prisoners to go home to the Basque Country.