Spain should grasp chance to end terror

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 March, 2006, 12:00am


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The use of violence in a bid to force concessions to political demands is abhorrent. Sadly, that has never prevented such action from occurring, even in societies that pride themselves on the rule of law. Nor has it stopped political movements identified with violence from tapping into sympathy for their causes at home and abroad.

Perhaps the most notable example is the Irish republican movement, which has traditionally found moral and financial support from around the world - especially from the United States. But attitudes have hardened since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

Last year, leaders of Sinn Fein, the republican movement's political wing, were given a cold shoulder instead of their usual warm reception in Washington on St Patrick's Day. Both President George W. Bush and Irish-American Senator Edward Kennedy snubbed them. The shift in attitude was sparked by a bank robbery and a brutal murder that made it difficult to overlook the party's links with its violent paramilitary ally, the Irish Republican Army. Since then, the IRA has announced the end of its armed struggle.

After September 11, the shadowy menace of global terrorism has struck again and again - mostly perpetrated by Islamic extremists. Public revulsion at such acts extended to domestic political movements identified with violence and terror.

Governments have co-ordinated worldwide efforts to break up terrorist networks and cells, and cut off their funding. In the face of this moral and physical onslaught, sympathy for some armed political movements has wavered. Traditional sources of funding have come under pressure. Renouncing violence in return for negotiations has begun to look like a more viable political option.

The armed Basque separatist movement in Spain is one that appears to have been persuaded. It has just announced a ceasefire from today so that it can take up a government offer of talks on a political settlement in the hope of securing more power for the Basque region.

When terrorists launched co-ordinated bomb attacks on passenger trains in Madrid two years ago, killing nearly 200 people, the Spanish government was quick to blame ETA. The group has killed more than 800 people and terrorised Spain for more than 40 years. Responsibility was later switched to Islamic radicals instead. It looks as if the group's decision to negotiate is linked with the popular outrage over the train attacks, which may have convinced it that terrorism is no longer politically profitable.

Spain should seize the opportunity provided by the latest development and look to the future. Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero's plan for negotiations with ETA offers a more positive way forward than his political opponents' demand for unconditional surrender. A lasting settlement would be the best memorial now to the victims of ETA's political terrorism.