For much of the past year in Spain's violence-racked Basque region, politicians and peace activists from Northern Ireland have been thick on the ground. Inspired by the Good Friday peace accord, they have been leading discussions on disarmament, prisoner releases, and negotiations that they hoped would soon become as much a reality in the regional capital, Bilbao, as they are in Belfast.
Their efforts have come to naught. This week, as Northern Ireland installed its first autonomous government in 25 years - including both Catholics and Protestants - the Basque country was bracing for a possible new outbreak of violence. ETA, the Basque separatist group, declared that it was ending its 14-month truce as of Dec. 3 and resuming its three decades long armed struggle for an independent state.
Elsewhere on the fringes of Europe, two huge bomb blasts on the French island of Corsica Nov. 25 served as a reminder of other unfinished ethnic business.
Corsican nationalists demanding independence from Paris claimed responsibility for the explosions, which destroyed two government buildings and wounded 13 people.
Despite these setbacks, Northern Ireland's tortuous road to peace has left signposts that others could usefully follow, say political analysts and experts in conflict resolution.
The Mitchell factor
First, the parties in Northern Ireland enjoyed the services of former US senator George Mitchell, "a mediator with credibility and influence,"says Spanish commentator Felipe Sahagun. "We have had nobody like him."
Nor was Mr. Mitchell simply a patient negotiator who enjoyed the trust of both Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, political ally of the Irish Republican Army, and David Trimble, head of the pro-British Ulster Unionist party. He also served as a constant reminder of the interest that the Clinton administration took in Northern Ireland's affairs.
"The US influence as an outside force putting on pressure and oiling the wheels has been critical," argues Andrew Ackland, a British conflict-resolution expert. "In some situations, unless you have a constructive outside influence it is hard for people to break out of their molds."
In the Basque conflict, on the other hand, there has been no significant international pressure on either ETA or the government in Madrid to reach an agreement. Indeed, neither side took any real advantage of the cease-fire, declared in September 1998. Government officials met ETA representatives only once, in a Swiss hotel, for talks that proved futile.
While ETA insisted on discussing the organization of a referendum on independence, Madrid refused to talk about anything more than prisoner conditions and eventual leniency. "Neither party has moved from its maximalist positions and there is no sign for the moment that either is prepared to do so," says Mr. Sahagun.
In Northern Ireland, though, the separate IRA and Protestant paramilitary cease-fires that paved the way for the current peace process have changed everybody's positions. London accepted the principle of self determination, Ireland this week is amending its Constitution to drop claims of territorial authority over Northern Ireland, and the IRA renounced violence. Thorny disputes remain, however. The issue of IRA disarmament still threatens the stability of the new powersharing Cabinet.
For any negotiations to succeed, says Mr. Ackland, "everybody has to get to the position where they face stark decisions, to stick with the status quo or to do things differently, and then they have to believe that they have got as much as they are going to get."
That does not appear to be the case in Spain. "I don't think the government in Madrid has come to the conclusion that it needs to negotiate with the Basques," suggests Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "They still think they can win."
ETA, meanwhile, sees little point in negotiating with Madrid, and had used the cease-fire more as an opportunity to try to build Basque institutions in the Basque region - parallel to the existing government structure - in alliance with moderate Basque parties. It was the failure of that strategy, ETA said in its communiqu Nov. 28, that led to the decision to take up arms again.
How much damage ETA guerrillas will be able to cause is a matter of dispute. The group has suffered heavily in recent months from a series of arrests in Spain and in France, which shares a portion of the Basque territory. And Spanish police have claimed success in breaking up ETA's financial network. Still, three ETA cells are operative, according to Spanish judicial authorities, and they are believed to have used the last 14 months to resupply with explosives and weapons.
"It is very, very hard to stamp this sort of thing out altogether," says Dr. Mitchell. "If the Spanish government thinks it can beat ETA just by using the police, they are deluding themselves."
Talks 'the only way forward'
In the end, argues William Hopkinson, a senior analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, the Northern Ireland experience reinforces what governments faced with uprisings worldwide have discovered. "When you have a fairly widely based cause, with fairly wide sympathy, the only way forward is negotiation."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society