RG and I arrived in Bilbao in the Basque Country, on the same flight as former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, last Thursday afternoon. While we were in the air a press conference in Geneva, Switzerland had heard a statement from ETA, the Basque resistance group, announcing that it was dissolving. From Bilbao RG and I were driven for more than two hours along fast motorways, and then through narrow country roads that twisted and turned along steep valleys, green and beautiful despite the overcast sky.
Despite the poor mobile signals, that was more often down than up, we did our best to keep abreast of developments in the west Tyrone by-election.
Towards 6pm arrived at our hotel in the picturesque village of Ainhoa, on the French side of the border between France and Spain. We joined several others, including Bertie, Jonathan Powell, and Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas of Mexico and some Basque colleagues who were due to take part the following day in an international conference to discuss the Basque peace process.
On Friday morning I awoke to the news that Orfhlaith Begley had comprehensively won the west Tyrone seat – taking almost half of the vote. A remarkable success. And I told her so when eventually, in between her interviews, I managed to speak to her.
The International Panel left the hotel shortly before 10.30am and in a convoy of five cars, we travelled the short distance to Kanbo, or in French Cambo les Bains. This is a small rural town in the foothills of the Pyrénées in the Basque province of Labourd in the French Basque country. One its more famous inhabitants was the French playwright and novelist Edmond Rostand. His most famous work is Cyrano de Bergerac. His home, the Villa Arnaga, is now a museum and heritage centre and on Friday hosted the conference.
A hundred or so guests, representative of Basque society and from both sides of the border, were there to listen to our contributions. Regrettably the Spanish government was not represented. There was a very large press corps to hear the outcome of our deliberations and our view on the decision by ETA.
Sinn Féin has had a long engagement with the Basque peace process. After the Good Friday Agreement was achieved in 1998 I travelled to the Basque Country and met political representatives from all sections of society there.
In the years since then Sinn Féin leaders, including Alex Maskey, Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness and others have travelled regularly to the region. Over the years the process that has emerged in the Basque country has drawn closely on the Irish peace process, including adopting the Mitchell Principles of ‘exclusively political and democratic means’to advance political objectives.
Almost eight years ago I attended a conference in Donostia-San Sebastian in Euskadi ‘to promote the resolution of the conflict in the Basque County’. Following our deliberations we called upon ETA to ‘make a public declaration of the definitive cessation of all armed action and to request talks with the governments of Spain and France to address exclusively the consequences of the conflict.’ Three days later ETA declared a “definitive cessation of its armed activity …”
In the years since then Sinn Féin has continued to engage in the Basque peace process. Last year ETA put its arms beyond use and two weeks ago it apologised for the hurt that it had caused. Last week it announced its decision to dissolve. It is a historic moment for the people of the Basque country everyone who has worked to create this opportunity for peace must be commended, especially the people of the Basque country.
When I addressed the conference last Friday I recalled the contribution of my friend Fr. Alec Reid who played a pivotal role in the Irish peace process and then spent many years travelling to the Basque country to help foster the conditions for the progress we were witnessing. I commended also the contribution of the Rev Harold Good, who was in Euskadi several weeks ago, and Martin McGuinness who had energetically supported this process over many years.
The Basque peace process, like the Irish peace process, is an example of what is possible when people of goodwill, determination and vision, refuse to lose hope and don’t give up.This is especially important as we look around the world today – at the desperate conditions of the Palestinian people – at events in Syria and Yemen, at the conflict in South Sudan and other wars in so many places.
In war you demonise, imprison, isolate, marginalise, criminalise and you kill your opponents. Making peace is much more challenging. It requires a different mindset and the starting point has to be dialogue. Making that happen requires positive leadership.
In my view there is a particular onus on governments, which are the powerful actors in any conflict, to proactively engage in efforts to create and sustain the conditions for a peace process. This isn’t easy for any state that has invested time, effort, money and lives in trying to win a conflict and defeat its enemy.
It is proving especially difficult for the Spanish government which has adopted a triumphalistic, entirely negative and unhelpful response to the ETA decision. A historic opportunity for peace and reconciliation has now opened up thanks to the efforts of the people of the Basque country and international community. The Spanish and French governments should embrace this new opportunity. The Spanish government could especially send a very positive signal of intent for a new future by agreeing to transfer Basque prisoners to prisons closer to their homes. That would not be a sign of weakness but a positive sign of compassion and compromise.
The issue of victims is also hugely important. Reconciliation and healing, and dealing thoughtfully and compassionately with the past, is an integral part of any conflict resolution process. The views of victims, all victims, must be heard. People on all sides to the conflict in that region have been hurt. But anger is not a policy. Revenge is not an option.
As I addressed the conference I told them that the following day, Saturday May 5th was the anniversary of the death on hunger strike of Bobby Sands. Bobby once wrote about revenge. He said; “Let our revenge be the laughter of our children.”
On that good day for the Basque people and the Spanish people I extended my best wishes to them all and my hope that all other concerns will be overcome by the laughter of their children.