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Basque Terrorism: As Good As It Gets

18 August 2009

Basque Terrorism: As Good As It Gets

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s still a nest of terrorists around here, but nobody worries about it much. These days, when you hear a helicopter at night it’s only the medevac chopper bringing some urgent case down to the main hospital at Bayonne on the coast.

In the bad old days, the helicopter you heard would have been using infrared detectors to spot Basque terrorists heading across the mountains at night into Spain. This south-western corner of France is just as Basque as the much larger Basque-speaking provinc es of Spain, but ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Land and Liberty) always used France as a safe rear area and did its actual killing across the frontier.

The terrorists are still around, and they enjoy a certain amount of local support. Last Saturday was the summer festival in our local town, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (or Donibane Garazi, in Basque), and everybody for miles around was drinking and dancing in the square below the citadel, waiting for it to get dark enough for the fireworks to begin. Suddenly banners were unfurled on the city walls: “Kidnapped? Tortured? Murdered? Where is Jon?”

So you ask, and it turns out that everybody knows who Jon is. He’s a local man, universally believed to be an ETA member, who got on a train to Toulouse but never arrived. Everybody also believes that he was carrying a large sum of money for ETA, which leads nasty cynics like myself to contemplate several alternative possible reasons for his disappearance, but local opinion is convinced that it was the state that got him.

Yet local opinion is not really very upset about it. Most people don’t care much whether the French police seized or killed Jon, or if somebody else robbed and killed him, or even if he just decided to disappear and live on the proceeds. It’s all part of the game that some play on the fringes of society, and they are welcome to play it as long as they don’t frighten the horses.

Across the border in Spain, where the killing happens, people take ETA much more seriously, and there is less sympathy for the killers among Spanish Basques than among French Basques. But there is also irreducible hard core of support for the extreme nationalist option. Spain does not let political parties that openly support terrorism run in national elections, but when a radical Basque party was allowed to run in the June elections for the European parliament it got 140,000 votes.

That’s only five percent of the population in those provinces. The terrorist struggle for Basque independence has so few supporters because the Basque provinces of Spain already have almost complete control over their own affairs. But that tiny minority of hard-liners is enough to sustain the armed struggle forever.

The “struggle” has killed 825 people over the past forty years, including three police killed by ETA bombs and sixty people injured by a truck bomb in Burgos this summer. There have been three cease-fires over the years, the last in 2006, but they never lead to a final deal because there is a small but steady supply of young people who cannot resist the lure of extremism. It gives meaning to their little lives.

But even on the Spanish side of the frontier, where there are deaths from terrorism every year, few people see it as a dominant factor in their lives. It’s just background noise, like the daily toll from traffic accidents.

The French police now cooperate closely with their Spanish counterparts in trying to catch the ETA militants who shelter in the French Basque provinces, but even when they didn’t, nobody in Spain suggested invading France to stamp out the terrorist sanctuaries. That would be grotesquely disproportionate, like invading Afghanistan to protect Americans from Arab terrorists.

The ETA story, like that of the IRA in Northern Ireland, teaches us three things. The first is that you don’t need a territorial “base” to carry out terrorist attacks; an isolated farmhouse or an anonymous city apartment will do. The second is that you should treat terrorism like any other crime: use the police to track the perpetrators down, and don’t inflate the whole problem enormously by getting the army involved.

The third is that you must not expect a decisive victory. When we talk about a “war on crime”, we do not expect all the criminals to come out one day with their hands up, after which there will be no more crime. Success is defined in terms of keeping the crime RATE down. Success in anti-terrorist operations has to be seen in similar terms, and anybody who promises you more is lying.

Eight years of the “war on terror” have created a huge military, corporate and bureaucratic lobby in the United States whose livelihood depends on a highly militarised approach to terrorism, so it will be a long time before a saner strategy prevails in Washington. Britain’s learning curve in Northern Ireland was thirty years long, and Russia has learned nothing yet in Chechnya. But people generally do the right thing in the end – after they have exhausted all the alternatives.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“The struggle…accidents”)

The IRA: What Went Wrong?

10 March 2005

The IRA: What Went Wrong?

By Gwynne Dyer

The implosion of the Irish Republican Army has been so sudden and complete that it seems to defy explanation. For thirty years the banned IRA commanded the loyalty of a large part of Northern Ireland’s Catholic population, and had significant support in the Republic of Ireland as well. Only months ago its legal political wing, Sinn Fein, was still seen as a necessary partner in a power-sharing government that would finally restore self-government to Northern Ireland. And now, in a matter of weeks, the IRA has dwindled in most people’s eyes to a mere criminal organisation.

It was real crimes that precipitated this dramatic change in the IRA’s public image. The first was a huge bank robbery in Northern Ireland on 19 December that netted $40 million — an incident that would have been celebrated by IRA supporters in the days when it was a revolutionary organisation waging a guerrilla war against British rule in the province, but was hard to defend eleven years after a ceasefire.

Then came a pub brawl on 30 January in a Catholic area of Belfast in which ten IRA members visiting from Derry for the Bloody Sunday commemoration, including a very senior officer, knifed Robert McCartney, an innocent fork-lift driver and Sinn Fein supporter, to death. The killers then wiped the pub clean of their fingerprints, took the tape out of the security cameras, warned the seventy witnesses not to say anything on pain of death, and left.

That was standard operating procedure in the old days, when the IRA was seen as the Catholic community’s only defence against the Protestants and the British authorities. But seven years after Sinn Fein committed itself to a peaceful political process it is just murder and intimidation , and Robert McCartney’s five sisters, all lifelong IRA supporters themselves, refused to abide by the traditional code of silence. They publicly demanded that the IRA hand their brother’s killers over to the authorities.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams invited the sisters to the party’s hundredth anniversary convention in Dublin last week in an attempt to heal the rift. It didn’t work: the sisters continued to demand that the IRA hand the killers over, and public opinion was with them. Incredibly, the IRA then offered to inflict “punishment shootings” on the guilty men: bullets through their knees, wrists and/or elbows, designed to cripple and cause a lifetime of pain but not to kill. The sisters refused, but message was clear: the IRA is still above the law and it will punish its erring members itself.

The contradiction between that stance and Sinn Fein’s commitment to a peaceful political role is so stark that the peace process now lies in ruins. Yet only three months ago a “historic compromise” between Sinn Fein and the main Protestant party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, seemed to be just around the corner: a power-sharing agreement between Gerry Adams and the DUP’s leader, Ian Paisley, that would have led to the disarming of the IRA and the restoration of self-government in the province.

It would not have been a happy marriage: Adams predicted that the new government would have “a battle a day” and Paisley agreed: “Hell would have been let loose, probably every morning.” But it would have been political hell, not terrorist hell: all of the IRA’s weapons were to be “decommissioned”, and normal, democratic political life would resume in Northern Ireland after a hiatus of over three decades. Then it all blew up in everybody’s faces.

The IRA stopped attacking the local police and British soldiers after the ceasefire of 1994, but it never abandoned violence in its own Catholic areas: dozens of people were kiolled over the years for “transgressions” ranging from drug trafficking to winning fistfights against IRA members in bars. It didn’t abandon its “fund-raising” activities, either: smuggling, extortion, money-laundering and occasional robberies. Just last year it carried out a $2 million supermarket robbery in May, a bank heist in September, and a $4 million cigarette robbery in October.

The British government had long turned a blind eye to the IRA’s involvement in these crimes in order not to damage the “peace process”, but that crashed anyway in December when Ian Paisley demanded that there be at least photographic proof that the IRA was really “decommissioning” its weapons and the IRA refused. (Gerry Adams explained that the IRA would “not submit to a process of humiliation.”) Then came history’s biggest bank job, followed by the murder of Robert McCartney and the extraordinary arrogance of the IRA’s response. It has evolved into a primarily criminal organisation with a paramilitary veneer.

That evolution was almost inevitable during the long years of the ceasefire. IRA active-service units are populated by “hard men” for whom violence is a normal tool. For the past eleven years they have been operating exclusively against soft and often highly profitable targets, while the discipline and self-sacrifice that was required for operating against hard military and police targets gradually melted away. They have turned into a kind of mafia, and Sinn Fein must break its ties with the IRA or face a bleak political future.

Sinn Fein has split five times in the past hundred years, and three times the split ended in bloodshed. Now it has to split again, and the possibility of bloodshed cannot be excluded this time either. But the chance of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland will be better if it takes the leap than if it does not.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The contradiction…faces”)

Catholics and Palestinians

22 October 2003

For ‘Catholics’, Read’Palestinians’

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s hard to guess which group would be angrier about being compared to the other, Israeli Jews or Northern Irish Protestants. The Islamist gunmen of Hamas would be outraged to hear themselves equated to the Catholic gunmen of the Irish Republican Army, and vice versa, too Yet the comparison is there to be made: the political and demographic situation of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland is very like that of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. And in Northern Ireland, the Catholics already sense that they are going to win.

There was political chaos in Northern Ireland last Tuesday (21 October). British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern had both flown into Belfast to preside over a ceremony that would mark the symbolic end of the long guerilla insurgency by the IRA in the British province. It’s over five years since the Good Friday Agreement ended all the shooting and bombing, but everyone is still in much need of ‘closure’. Only it didn’t quite happen.

There has been some unravelling of the peace process recently, with Protestants doubting that the IRA would ever really abandon its guns and the IRA leadership determined to do nothing that would signal military defeat or surrender. After a generation of direct rule from London democracy returned to Northern Ireland, but the elected assembly in which Catholic and Protestant parties uncomfortably shared power was suspended last year after the IRA was caught spying on government officials. So this occasion was meant to bind up all the wounds.

The event that would provide a symbolic end to the war was to be the third and largest act of ‘decommissioning’ of weapons by the IRA,. The day began well, with Tony Blair proclaiming a new election to the Northern Irish assembly on 28 November and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (the IRA’s political front), vowing to “bring an end to conflict on our island, including physical force republicanism.”

But then Canadian General John de Chastelain, head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, said that he had seen some more IRA weapons ‘put beyond use’ — but he wasn’t allowed to say when, or where, or how many weapons, or what proportion they were of the IRA’s remaining arsenal. The IRA was willing to give up some arms in the cause of peace, but it just couldn’t bear to let anybody see it publicly renounce its weapons after a century of romanticising the gunman as the ultimate Irish Catholic hero.

In the face of that act of childishness, David Trimble, head of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, responded with one of his own and walked out, leaving Tony Blair to say helplessly that he wouldn’t have walked if he could only be told how many weapons the IRA had decommissioned. So everyone is in disarray, and even the November election and the restoration of democratic rule in Northern Ireland are now uncertain. Yet there is no chance that the province will slide back into war. Why?

Because the 2001 census revealed that Protestants, who were 63 percent of Northern Ireland’s population forty years ago, are now barely a majority: 53 percent of the province’s 1.5 million people and dropping fast. Catholics have risen from 35 to 44 percent, and will probably have a clear majority by 2010: there were 173,000 Catholic children in Northern Ireland’s schools last year, compared to only 144,000 Protestants. So the IRA no longer needs violence to end British rule; Sinn Fein can do it through electoral politics.

The British government will not resist that outcome, if it is achieved legitimately, because the British people lost interest in hanging onto the province long ago: according to a Guardian/ICM poll two years ago, 46 percent of Britons would prefer to see Northern Ireland merged with the Irish Republic, compared to only 21 percent who want to keep it in Britain. So of course Sinn Fein wants the assembly restored: nothing seems to stand between it and victory except time.

Now compare this situation with Israel and the occupied territories, where today there are 5.5 million Israeli Jews and 4.5 million Palestinians. Only one million of those Palestinians live in Israel proper, which is therefore guaranteed a permanent Jewish majority despite a much higher Palestinian birth-rate — but in ‘Greater Israel’ Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews as early as 2010. So you can have a Jewish, democratic Israel within the country’s pre-1967 borders, or a Greater Israel that is either Jewish, or democratic, but not both.

That was the original British mistake at the partition of Ireland in 1922. In being greedy about the borders of the new, Protestant Northern Ireland, it included hundreds of thousands of Catholics with a much higher birth-rate. So greater Northern Ireland could not forever be both Protestant and democratic; eventually it would have to choose. In fact, since the British government calls the shots and will not condone permanent suppression of Catholic rights, the choice will make itself. It’s just a matter of time.

Northern Ireland is twenty to thirty years ahead of Israel: carved out of the new Irish republic in 1925, whereas Israel was carved out of Palestine in 1947; plunged into a bloody 25-year guerilla war in 1969, whereas the intifada in Greater Israel only started three years ago. But both countries are travelling the same road, and both face the same choice sooner or later.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“The British…time”; and “That was…time”)

An Error in the Basque Country

2 September 2002

An Error in the Basque Country

By Gwynne Dyer

What’s happening in Spain doesn’t make sense. Last week, as the police dragged members of the recently ‘illegalised’ Basque separatist party Batasuna from their party offices in Bilbao, the evicted activists chanted “pim, pam, pum” (bang, bang, bang) — in effect a threat that their military wing, ETA, would take revenge on the police. And last weekend ETA duly hijacked a van and left it parked under an elevated Bilbao freeway with a 40 kg (88 lb.) bomb aboard (though the police managed to defuse the bomb in time).

At least it made a change from ETA’s recent tactic of targeting foreign tourists by burying bombs on Spanish beaches. But why would a significant number of the two million Basques, who have freedom, prosperity, and more autonomy than any other comparable region in Europe, feel sympathy for these terrorists? Why would ten to fifteen percent of Spain’s Basque citizens regularly vote for Batasuna, a political party that they know is only a front for the terrorists?

The terrorist organisation ETA (Euzkadi ta Azkatasuna — Basque Land and Liberty) first emerged in the early 1970s, in the dying days of the long Franco dictatorship, but it really got going only after democracy had been restored in Spain: fewer than a dozen of the 836 killings attributed to ETA were committed before Franco’s death. It can never achieve its goal of independence through the ballot-box: 85-90 percent of the electorate in the Basque region vote for moderate Basque nationalists or mainstream Spanish parties. But there is still that other ten or fifteen percent.

There is no comparable constituency for terror and murder elsewhere in Western Europe. The long and bitter quarrel between the Flemish and French-speakers of Belgium has never got beyond insults and fisticuffs. The Swiss, despite their four languages, are models of tolerant coexistence. Even in Northern Ireland, the killing has stopped at last. It doesn’t make sense that the Basques, or a substantial number of them at least, are still at it.

But neither do the Spanish government’s actions make much sense. More than a quarter-century of tough security measures has not ended ETA’s struggle, so it’s obvious that there must ultimately be a political solution. For which you need a political partner.

For all of that quarter-century there has been a legal political party, now called Batasuna, which collected funds for ETA, acted as its spokesman, and ran candidates for office throughout the Basque provinces, while always formally denying its links with the banned organisation. Leaving this front organisation in existence (while trying to curb its illegal activities) made sense, because it gave the Spanish government somebody legal to talk to, and make deals with if ETA ever got tired of killing.

Unfortunately, since the election of Jose Maria Aznar’s Popular Party government in 1996, there has been nobody in Madrid who wants to talk. An eighteen-month ceasefire by ETA, ending two years ago, achieved nothing because Spanish government made no response whatever. And the ‘war on terrorism’ launched by Washington after last September’s attacks in the US has emboldened Aznar’s government to ban Batasuna entirely.

It is a two-pronged assault, political and legal. Last June the Spanish parliament passed a ‘law of political parties’ which provides for the banning of parties that are complicit in terrorism, and on 26 August it passed a law banning Batasuna and confiscating all its property. Even before that, the crusading judge Baltasar Garzon had amassed enough evidence of the close links between Batasuna and ETA to get a court order suspending Batasuna for three years.

Over the coming weeks, not only will Batasuna’s political offices be shut down, but even the corner bars in every Basque town where the militants gather (and which serve as a cash cow for the organisation) will be closed. Demonstrations and public meetings under Batasuna’s banner will be banned. Many Basque nationalists who are not involved consciously implicated in terror will be arrested during these events, and some will go to jail. The bombs and assassinations, of course, will continue.

In Madrid, all the major parties agree that this is a wise move. In the Basque country itself, however, the doubts are huge. The regional government, led by the moderate, non-violent Basque Nationalist Party, is deploying its police against Batasuna only with the gravest misgivings: “This operation takes us further from peace,” said Basque interior minister Jose Jon Imaz as he gave the necessary orders.

Is he right? The experience of Northern Ireland suggests that he is. For over thirty years the Irish Republican Army waged a savage terrorist war in Northern Ireland; the death toll was three times higher in a place with a quarter of the population of the Basque provinces. But through it all the British government refused to ban the Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political front and the moral equivalent of Batasuna, because the substantial proportion of the Catholic population who backed its goals and methods should not be stripped of all political representation.

The pay-off was the Good Friday agreement in Belfast four years ago, the decisive step that ended the decades of violence and brought the Catholic minority’s biggest political grouping back into the political process. They first had to be convinced that they could not win their goal by force of arms, of course, but even after that they had to be allowed a face-saving way back into the normal political process. Spain, unfortunately, is moving in the other direction.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“For…killing”; and “It is…continue”)