No-one should be afraid of peace
It takes two to tango and two, undoubtedly, to make a peace process successful.
Thus the frustration of the peace process in the Basque Country where despite bold decisions by ETA to call an end to its armed campaign, the Spanish Government remains stubbornly opposed to any reciprocal steps which would speed the journey from war to peace in this beautiful land. As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, the ETA decision to end its campaign was “a victory for dialogue and peace.”
The only response to such intransigence, of course, is to intensify the peacebuilding steps which will not only bring Europe’s longest-running conflict to a close but will also move the Basque people closer to their dream of self-determination.
One such step would be to release the leader of the Basque peace process Arnaldo Otegi who has been in jail since 2009, having been convicted of professing support for ETA — charges which would be laughed out of court in any other western democracy.
On Wednesday, evening I was privileged to be at the unveiling in Donostia-San Sebastian of a declaration by US literary and cultural figures calling for Otegi’s release. Among those lending their names to the Free Otegi demand are multi-Oscar winning cinematographer (and friend of Belfast) Haskell Wexler and Cod author Mark Kurlansky.
At the launch, I met Teresa Toda Iglesia, who was arrested 17 years previously — to the day — as a deputy editor with Basque daily Egin. She spent six years in jail far from the Basque Country. Incredibly, three of those imprisoned remain in jail having been convicted of absurd charges of being under the direction of ETA. “In the thousands of sheets of this legal summary, there were no weapons, no explosives, no one had hosted anyone involved in terrorist activities,” said Teresa Toda Iglesia.
But it’s hard to legislate against change.
I saw that on Thursday when I returned to Andoain to visit the daily Basque newspaper Berria. I met Managing Editor Martxelo Otamendi in his offices which, when I last visited in August 2003, were under lock and key at the order of the Madrid courts. Martxelo and the board of the Basque daily, then named Egunkaria, were arrested in February of that year and the paper closed down. To Spain’s shame, Martxelo was tortured by police and his case became a cause celebre, being investigated by the UN rapporteur on torture and eventually resulting in the European courts ordering the Spanish authorities to pay him compensation.
But it’s hard to keep a resurgent people down. Egunkaria was no more but in offices just 100 metres away, a new daily newsaper, Berria, was born two months later — with Martxelo returning as CEO at the insistence of its staff.
Today, Berria employs 61 journalists, has a sister TV channel and publishes a slew of community newspapers — all in Basque, a language which is not only the very soul of Euskal Herria but is unique in linguistic terms, being in a family of just one!
Change is coming — albeit much too slow — but the lesson must be that no-one should be afraid of peace and all should applaud the peacemakers. The Irish Government should use its sovereign status and its experience of our own miraculous peace process to insist that Spain releases Arnaldo Otegi and allows the Basque people the same right the people of the North of Ireland have under the Good Friday Agreement — to chose their own political destiny.