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ETA to Follow IRA Move to Disarm?

The IRA's pledge to disarm, leaves Spain's ETA as the only significant group waging armed struggle against a national government in Europe. Will they soon follow the Northern Irish example?

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ETA bombs - soon a thing of the past?

For nearly 40 years ETA has battled for an independent Basque nation. ETA bomb attacks have killed more than 800 people. But the group recently announced that it is prepared to engage in dialogue. And people in the Basques see the peace process in Northern Ireland as an example to follow. Does the IRA's complete disarmament nudge Spain's Basque's closer to a peace process of its own?

A solution to the wider problem of Basque separatism still looks a long way off. But now that the IRA has given up its weapons, there is hope on the streets of Madrid that Basque separatist group ETA could do the same.

Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Spain's Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero

Spanish politicians of all hues were quick to welcome the IRA move. Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero called it "great news," but was quick to add that the situation in the Basque region is very different from Northern Ireland.

Authorities: Violence to cease before dialogue

For the vast majority of Spaniards, the first move towards a peace process must be ETA's disarmament. The obvious major difference between Northern Ireland and Spain is that the IRA ceased attacks to allow the peace process, while the militant, separatist group ETA continues its violent struggle.

But there's another key difference that supporters of Basque separatism emphasize. There was a peace process and dialogue in Northern Ireland between all the political groups before the IRA disarmed. For that reason Basque politicians do see the peace process in Northern Ireland as a model.

Basque's: party ban obstructs peace process

It is true that the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, was a vital part of that peace process. But in Spain, the political wing of ETA, Batasuna, was banned two years ago. The party's supporters -- numbering up to 15 percent of voters in the Basques -- say the ban curtails their basic democratic rights and makes dialogue and a peace process impossible.

On the other hand, Batasuna, unlike Sinn Fein, has never been able to distance itself from its militant wing. On numerous occasions Spanish courts have proven Batasuna's involvement in funding and supporting ETA violence. And the majority of Spaniards agree with their government and the Batasuna ban: If the political wing of ETA won't play by the rules of democracy, it shouldn't be allowed to participate.

Both sides willing to talk

But in spite of all these problems, there is much more hope than a few years ago, that a peace process could soon be under way. The Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is prepared to talk to both Basque separatist political parties and even ETA -- a significant break with the policy of the former conservative government.

In response, earlier this year, ETA announced that they too are willing to seek dialogue with the national government, but do not want to disarm. With police continually capturing suspects, though -- thanks in part to co-operation from the French authorities -- experts say that the armed group is now at one of its weakest points in its history. Even former ETA leaders are calling for the group to disarm.

ETA's isolation

Spanien Jahrestag Terroropfer Madrid Atocha

On the first anniversary of the March 11, 2004 train bombings, commuters commemorate the victims at Madrid's Atocha train station.

After the horror of the March 11, 2004 train bomb attacks by Islamic militants, there's a feeling that violence can no longer achieve political ends. The announcement that the only other significant militant group in Europe is laying downs its weapons makes ETA seem more isolated than ever.

There is optimism in Spain that the armed representatives of Europe's longest independence struggle may soon give up their weapons and take part in the political process.

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