TALKS AND VISIT to the SOUTHERN BASQUE COUNTRY in OCTOBER 2017

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

This Autumn I made myself available to give talks in the southern Basque Country (i.e. in the Spanish state) on the situation of Irish political prisoners and a series was arranged for mid-October for nearly two weeks.

As well as having private conversations, I gave a total of five public talks to audiences ranging in size from ten to over forty. The composition of the audiences varied from youths to older middle-aged; in some places the latter predominated and in some, the former.

All the meetings I spoke at were arranged by an organisation called Amnistia Ta Askatasuna which calls for total amnesty for Basque political prisoners. This was also a demand of the whole movement and of the leadership of the Abertzale Left until fairly recently and the Gestoras pro-Amnistia organisation had been created under the Abertzale Left umbrella but then banned by the Spanish State. But the Abertzale Left’s leadership have now dropped this demand from public discourse, saying the conditions are not ripe for it and concentrating instead on the end of the dispersal. (More about this and the Basque prisoner situation later).

DB 3 Talks Poster Oct2017

Poster on a wall advertising three talks in the southern Basque Country before the remaining two were confirmed. October 2017. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

I had not intended to confine my talks to those organised by ATA but it was they who organised the talks on dates that were offered, with the exception of one from an independent source that unfortunately clashed with one I had already accepted elsewhere.

Amnistia Posters what wall

ATA posters share with other advertising on a wall in the southern Basque Country, October 2017 (Photo: D.Breatnach)

THE TALKS

The types of venues for the talks were community cultural centres (two), occupied buildings (two) and one local (a space for which the users’ association paid rent and used for their activities). Geographically, the talks were held in Gernika and two in Bilbao (Bizkaia province), Etxarri (Nafarroa) and Ibarra (Guipuzkoa province). There were none in Alava province (although earlier this year I gave interviews to Hala Bedi pirate radio there, in Gastheiz/ Vitoria). On this occasion also I gave a video interview to a rapper who also makes videos for Hala Bedi, though he is located in Bizkaia.

From conversations and discussion it became clear that all the older people in the audiences were veterans of the Basque struggle over decades and a number were ex-prisoners. Some had relatives in jail. The youths had come to political activity or thinking in recent years.

DB Charla Ibarra 24 Oct2017

Talk in cultural centre in Ibarra, Guipuzkoa, southern Basque Country, October 2017. (Photo: ATA)

For the content of the talks I briefly reviewed the more distant history of political prisoners in Ireland, moving on then to the Good Friday Agreement and the release of

Torn poster DB talk Ibarra 24 Oct2017.

Torn poster advertising the talk in Ibarra, Guipuzkoa province, southern Basque Country, October 2017. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

most Irish Republican prisoners in the Six Counties under its terms. The arrest and jailing without charge of a number of these ex-prisoners was part of the talk, in which the specific examples given were of Marian Price, Martin Corey and Tony Taylor. I also dealt with the procedure of arrest on ridiculous charges and refusal of bail, or granting it under undemocratic and restrictive conditions, for which I used Stephen Murney as an example. Conviction on charges which the evidence does not support is also a category I mentioned, giving the Craigavon Two as an example there. Arrest on arms charges is also a feature on both sides of the Border.

With regard to the 26 Counties, i.e the Irish state, I discussed the Special Court, Membership-of-an-illegal-organisation charges and charges of obtaining arms or having assisted terrorism. I mentioned the planned second Special Court in particular in the context of the State’s failure to convict most of the Jobstown protesters on charges that included “false imprisonment” (i.e kidnapping).

While noting that splits had occurred before in the Republican movement – the Provisionals themselves having emerged from such a split in 1970 – I noted that since the GFA, splits had multiplied and listed a number of the resulting organisations, including those that had existed already at that time.

Listing the number of Irish political prisoners (at the latest count then 79) and reminding the audience that the Irish had extended solidarity to Basque political prisoners, I asked the Basques for solidarity towards our political prisoners too. And I did so not only as a moral issue of internationalist solidarity but also in recognition that internationalist solidarity is one of the first casualties (i.e aspects to drop or weaken) by those who are seeking to surrender the struggle or even to become collaborators.

Talk in cultural centre in Etxarri, Nafarroa province, southern Basque Country, October 2017.
(Photo: ATA)

QUESTIONS

I timed the talks to give sufficient space for – and encouraged — questions and comments, even critical ones.

It was interesting that the same questions tended to come up again and again:

  • Did the different Republican organisations cooperate with one another inside and outside the jails?

  • What were the conditions in the prisons like for the prisoners?

  • How are political prisoners in ill-health being treated?

  • Is there a dispersal issue with regard to political prisoners

  • Did the population support the prisoners?

  • What were the conditions for their release under the Good Friday Agreement?

  • Did INLA prisoners sign the GFA release agreement?

  • Are there armed actions continuing in Ireland?

  • Are the youth involved in solidarity actions and campaigns?

  • What was the attitude of Sinn Féin towards the political prisoners?

  • Are prisoners “on the run” still in danger of arrest and imprisonment?

In one meeting, one of the smaller audiences and containing only youth, I was asked about the role of women in the national liberation struggle in Ireland today.

Talk in the occupied former Astra factory building, Gernika, Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country, October 2017.
(Photo: ATA)

Some of the questions asked reflect the situation of the Basque political prisoners and also of the censored and inaccurate information about Ireland that reaches them, including through the Abertzale Left‘s (the “official” umbrella organisation) daily newspaper, GARA. At a number of times in the past spokespersons of the Abertzale Left’s organisations had claimed that there were no longer Irish political prisoners, a claim repeated in GARA. More recently, the tendency is to ignore their existence or to represent them as very few, without a program other than return to armed struggle and without a support base (i.e Sinn Féin’s line).

The new direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership, which included a “permanent truce” and disarmament of their armed organisation ETA (formally declared in January 2011) was said at the time to have been agreed by the Basque political prisoners in their organisation EPPK. There have been persistent claims by friends and relatives of some prisoners and by some prisoners released in the last couple of years that they had not even been consulted.

A number of people to whom I spoke claimed that the prisoners’ collective no longer really exists, with prisoners left to act individually; some others said this was true to an extent but not completely. Certainly one feels a general air of disillusionment and uncertainty – and also of anger. And it is true that a small number of prisoners have formally denounced the leadership and left the collective.

Grafitti in Ondarroa, Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

From figures collected in 2003, up to 30,000 Basque activists out of a total population of less than three million) had been arrested, 8,170 were accused of being members of ETA and roughly half of those convicted and imprisoned. The prisoners’ relatives and friends’ organisation Etxerat (also under the Abertzale Left’s umbrella) in its July-September report of this year (2017) recognises 315 Basque political prisoners, of which 310 are dispersed through 61 prisons, with only two in 2 prisons in the Basque Country.

In 39 prisons in the Spanish state 239 Basque political prisoners are being kept and 68 in twenty prisons of the French state. There are 212 (68.85%) Basque political prisoners in prisons at distances of between 600 and 1,100 km of the Basque Country; from a distance of 400 to 590 km from their country there are 67 (21.75 %) and between 100 and 390 km of home another 29 (9.40 %).

The strain on relatives and friends is considerable, road accidents are frequent and a number have been killed on their journeys.

Twenty-one prisoners (21) are diagnosed as being seriously or terminally ill and according to the states’ penal codes should have been released on parole to home or hospital but instead of reducing the number of sick prisoners the total is climbing (almost doubled in recent years).  I accompanied ATA comrades to the port town of Ondarroa to participate in a demonstration organised by a broad platform calling for the release of terminally-ill Basque political prisoner Ibon Iparragirre.

Section of rally after demonstration in Ondarroa, Bizkaia, in solidarity with local seriously-ill prisoner Ibon Iparragirre, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Stage rally after demonstration in Ondarroa, Bizkaia, in solidarity with local seriously-ill prisoner Ibon Iparragirre, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Spanish state has rejected all the “peace process” (sic) overtures of the Abertzale Left leadership and says that ETA should just disappear and prisoners wishing to be pardoned and released must repent their previous actions, apologise to their “victims” and give information on their previous activities and comrades. It also says that all still at liberty and wanted for past illegal activities will continue to be pursued.

COMMENTS AND CONTRIBUTIONS

These too tended to be of a kind to come up again and again throughout the tour:

  • The situation in Ireland with regard to the liberation movement and prisoners is like that in the Basque Country or that which the latter will face as time goes on

  • The prisoners’ cause is being deserted by the Abertzale Left leadership

  • Their media and leadership had lied to the movement about the situation in Ireland

  • The leadership is only interested in penetrating the institutions and is neglecting the politics of the street

  • Otaegi and Adams are alike and McGuinness was a traitor when he asked people to inform on paramilitaries

The Abertzale Left did not of course comment on the talks – why would they? However, in Ibarra, I saw posters for the meeting torn down in areas where others remained and according to my hosts, this was the work of the “oficialistas(i.e followers of the leadership’s line) in the town. It was notable too that although a few did, a number of people within the Abertzale Left but whom I know to be very critical of the change of direction, did not attend the talks held in their areas. Since some had previously attended a meeting at which I spoke a year ago and engaged in discussion critical of the Abertzale leadership, I took it that these either disapproved of the ATA organisers or did not wish, for whatever reason, to be seen attending a meeting held by the organisation.

At all the talks I was received with friendliness and courtesy and after some I had a meal in company in a txoko (Basque building — or part of one — owned or rented by a gastronomic association) or the home of my hosts for the evening. Although I invited criticisms with genuine interest in hearing them, none were voiced publicly, whether of the content of my talk or of the Irish people generally — although there were some questions as to why the people “in the south” had not supported more widely the “struggle in the north”. I explained that what they call “the north” is one-fifth or the country and also divided in its population; in addition the Republican movement had left the social and economic concerns of the people in the other four-fifths largely unaddressed and in fact had opposed some social reforms in earlier times. People in the 26 Counties had given a lot of support but without mobilising them on their own concerns and specific conditions this was likely to be a minority activity and to decline over time.

CATALUNYA: SOUTHERN BASQUE ATTITUDE TO THE STRUGGLE THERE

Inevitably, the struggle in Catalunya came into the discourse at some point – after all, I had arrived in Euskal Herria just under two weeks after the Referendum.

The Catalan national flags, the esteladas (both versions) were in evidence across the Basque Country as were some solidarity banners and posters. The two solidarity demonstrations I witnessed (and in which I participated but for a while – each having been called for the same evening as my talk locally) in Nafarroa and in Bizkaia appeared to have been called by the “official” movement and were fairly small and quiet. The largest, of over fifty people, did not even have a flag, placard or banner, which was puzzling.

Large image on the wall of the youth local in Errekalde, Bilbao, where they hosted one of the talks, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

It was reported to me that some time back, the Abertzale Left had been close to the militant CUP (Catalan left-wing and independist popular movement) but now were moving closer to the Eskerra Republicana, often perceived as being less militant and closer to the Catalan bourgeoisie. Among the critics of the Abertzale Left leadership and others there seemed to be a doubt that the Catalan leadership was serious; however, both the “officials” and the “dissidents” had sent people to help the Catalans in their referendum.

After the Spanish police violence on October 1st there was a feeling that the Catalans were enduring what the Basques had endured for decades so why the great shock now? When two leaders of the Catalan movement were arrested and jailed without bail and called “political prisoners”, of course the Basques pointed to their own hundreds of political prisoners (and also to two Catalans who were ETA prisoners). The failure to declare a Republic on the promised day seemed to bear out those with a more cynical view but actions since then and the application of the repressive Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution are bound to raise feelings of respect and solidarity across the Basque national liberation movement, whether “official” or “dissident”.

IN CONCLUSION

It is clear that there is interest in the Irish situation and of that of the prisoners in at least some sections of the broad Basque national liberation movement. It is also clear that there is a substantial discomfort with the direction of the Abertzale Left’s leadership since 2011 (and for some since even earlier). Frustration is also evident as is a great concern for the political prisoners and a worry that they are being left without leadership, to come to their own arrangements with the Spanish state or to endure many more years in jail or die there (as Kepa De Hoyo did in August and as Ibon Iparragirre faces now).

This level of concern, disquiet and even distrust is not currently reflected in great numbers attending pickets or demonstrations organised by ATA, as numbers attending the talks showed in some areas but as the talks also showed, there is a network of support for ATA across the southern Basque Country. It was clear that a greater lead-up would have resulted in talks being hosted in further areas, including the province of Alava which was not included on this occasion. The general composition of the movement represented by ATA is healthy in its spread across generations, comprised of veterans (including ex-prisoners) and youth new to the struggle.

The pedestrian bridge at Ondarroa, scene of one of the “human walls” organised some years ago by Basque youth in resistance to the arrests of activists. Supporters placed the activist police were seeking in the middle and then packed the bridge with supporters, causing the police hours of work to carry out the arrest. I was told that the official leadership had ordered the cessation of these events. October 2017. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

From a personal point of view it was an interesting if somewhat hectic and stressful period but also one that increased my understanding of the reality.

From a political perspective I hope it helped build some links for solidarity between the struggles in each of the two nations and an awareness that pacification processes are not an alternative but only another face of repression. For the struggles in which so many have sacrificed so much to succeed, we need to raise our awareness of these processes. In these processes political prisoners, often seen by their populations as heroes and people to be cherished, are used by the repressive power as hostages and often too as bargaining counters, the temptation always there for some of those in struggle to use them in kind.

FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS!

LINKS:

Amnistia FB page (Euskera and Castillian (Spanish)): https://www.facebook.com/amnistiataaskatasuna/

Amnistia Blogsite (Euskera and Castillian): http://www.etxerat.eus/index.php/eu/

Etxerat Website (Euskera, Castillian and French): http://www.etxerat.eus/index.php/eu/

From Axpe de Busturia train station, Bizkaia, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Morning view of misty mountains from host’s house in Etxarri, Nafarroa province, October 2017.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

Bermeo Harbour and some Town

Bermeo Harbour and some of the town from heights above, October 2017. Near the big building at 9 o’clock on the photo was the location of a Franco prison for Resistance women — I was told that Basque nuns locally brought food to the jail for them every day. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Part of the Bay of Bizkaia (Biscay), October 2017, from the site of a Basque Gudari artillery battery during the Anti-Fascist War.
(Photo: D.Breatnach)

 

 

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CATALONIA V. SPAIN – THE BREAKUP OF AN EU STATE?

Diarmuid Breatnach

Another spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of an EU state’s fragmentation and the possible disintegration of the EU itself. It may begin with the breakup of a European state but could ultimately affect most of southern, south-eastern and south-western Europe.

Huge Barcelona Independence Demonstration Diada 11 Sep2017

Huge pro-Catalan Independence demonstration fills the streets of Barcelona on Catalunya’s national day. (Photo source: Guardian, on line).

A street demonstration in Barcelona on Catalunya’s national day filled the streets with an incredible number (over one million according even to the police) and awash with the “Estelades”, the Catalan revolutionary flag of the Senyera estelada from the 1930s with the blue triangle enclosing a white star, in homage to Cuba and Puerto Rico (see video link below). From above, apart from the flags, the demonstration appeared lime-green as participants wore T-shirts of that colour with the (“yes”) for independence printed on them.

The demonstrators formed a huge “X” in the city to signify a “yes” vote for independence and somewhere near the middle, three human towers put their topmost members displaying a clenched fist in the universal sign of resistance to oppression.

The political crisis surrounding the current bid for a referendum on independence for Catalunya (their nation in Catalan) serious consequences for the Spanish state but as the crisis matures may also deeply affect two other European states: France and Italy.

As the Parlement of Catalunya has now declared by majority that it will defy the Spanish State and hold a referendum on independence from the Spanish state on October 1st, the Spanish ruling class grows increasingly desperate and

  • Had its Constitutional Court declare the referendum unconstitutional and illegal,
  • Has the paramilitary police force, the Guardia Civil, searching for ballot boxes with the intention of confiscating them,
  • Summoned 700 town Mayors to answer to charges of facilitating an illegal referendum by allowing their council buildings to be used as polling stations
  • Threatened to charge Parlament pro-independendists with disobedience and abuse of power
  • Closed down the official Catalan referendum website

It also demanded weekly accounts on expenditure from the Parlament to try and ensure it was not funding the referendum.

Alto Catalan Ballot Box

ALTO! HALT! (Cartoon by DB)

In response, the leader of the Parlement says the Spanish can arrest him if they want but he is going ahead with the referendum. Many among the 700 town Mayors of Catalunya have said they will not attend court while others have said they will as they believe they have done nothing wrong. Many organisations and institutions have offered their premises as polling stations if necessary. Hundreds of Catalans have volunteered to help organise the referendum and to staff the polling stations.

To many observers, it will seem that the actions of the Spanish state are hysterical and excessive. On the other hand, to those who understand the history and nature of the Spanish state, it is hard to see how the Spanish ruling class can concede Catalan independence. That is on ideological and political grounds alone; and if those grounds were not enough, there are also the financial, economic and territorial ones.

 

“SPAIN: UNITARY, GREAT AND FREE”

The fascist Spanish slogan: “Espaňa – Una, Grande y Libre”, the claim that their state is unitary as well as “Great and Free”, explains in part the problem for the Spanish ruling class in a Catalonian secession. The creation of the Spanish kingdom was based on alliances for war against the Moorish Iberian kingdom of El Andalus, that religiously-tolerant kingdom of great learning and culture and it brought all other Iberian kingdoms under its rule. Subsequently, the Spanish Kingdom forced Christianity on the Jews or expelled them (creating the Sephardic Jewish refugees) as they did also not only to the defeated Moors of El Andalus but also to those other Arabs who had fought as allies of the Christian Royals. In later years the Spanish Empire lost conquered territory abroad but never gave any up on the Iberian Peninsula since the breakaway of the Kingdom of Portugal in 1143.

Unlike most of Europe, there was no successful revolution against the feudal system in the Spanish state, which retarded its economic and political development. However, the revenue from the kingdom’s exploitation of its vast territories in America kept the State powerful (while also acting as a negative counterbalance against the development of its industry).

 

SPANISH CIVIL WAR AND INVASION

Modernising and liberalising movements did struggle for change within the State but the First Spanish Republic only lasted under two years (11 February to 29 December 1874). The Second Republic (1931-1939) went through a right-wing repressive phase but then turned to a liberal-socialist phase, at which point the Army mutinied under the leadership of the Four Generals, of which Franco became the best-known.

The Second Republic conceded autonomy to Catalunya and Galicia and later, perhaps reluctantly, to the southern Basque Country (excluding Nafarroa/ Navarra, where the reactionary Christian-monarchist Carlists seized control and sided with the military insurgency). Aided by German Nazi and Italian fascist air transport, war material and troops, as well as by the complicity of Britain and France, the military defeated the Second Spanish Republic after a fierce struggle and a Christian-fascist dictatorship under General Franco took over the country.1

Esteladas in Demonstration

The Esteladas flying in a Catalan demonstration for Independence. (Photo source: Internet)

All claims to separate nationhoods were suppressed, all the nations being considered merely “regions” of the Spanish state, with picturesque traditional costumes and feasts. Castillian (Spanish) was to be the only language permitted in use, with particular repression inflicted on those of the strongest and most widely-used tongues, Catalan and Euskera (Basque).

adolf-hitler-franco-reviewing-troops-in-hendaye-northern-basque-country.jpg

Adolf Hitler and General Franco reviewing German occupation troops in Hendaye, Northern Basque Country, 1942 (Photo source: Internet)

Armed resistance of a guerrilla-type continued for awhile after the end of the Civil War/ Anti-Fascist War, and in the 1960s the Basque left-nationalist group ETA commenced armed struggle after nearly a decade of persecution by the Spanish State. For a while too there was an armed group in Catalunya.

After the death of Franco in 1975, the Spanish ruling class, under internal pressure from the Christian technocrat movement Opus Dei and external pressure from the USA, attempted a modernising and liberalising change of regime which is now widely referred to as the “transition to democracy” (sic) or just plainly as La Transición.

As part of this process, the Monarchy was re-imposed on the people when Juan Carlos de Borbón, who had been groomed by Franco, was declared King of Spain in 1975 and also named as Franco’s successor. No vote was held on the reimposition of a King on the Spanish state which had been without a reigning monarch for 34 years. A Constitution was drawn up which included the Spanish state being a constitutional monarchy and with much talk of democracy and changes, including regional autonomy, the Constitution gained 88% votes in favour. Among the 22% negative votes were the majority of the southern Basque Country.

Hitler & Juan Carlos

General Franco in his declining years with his protege, Juan Carlos, later crowned King of Spain. (Photo source: Internet)

After Juan Carlos’ abdication in June 2014, Juan Carlos’ son Felipe VI was declared King, a majority of the representatives in the Cortes (Spanish Parliament) voting to approve — which included not only the hard right-wing Partido Popular (PP) but also the helpful abstention of the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero (PSOE).

 

THAT WAS THEN – BUT NOW?

After Franco’s death, Catalunya was created an “autonomous region” and was ruled by a right-wing majority in the Parlament2; nevertheless struggles with the Spanish State have broken out from time to time, in particular about the use of the Catalan language and the primacy which Catalans, both right and left-wing, wish it have in Catalunya.

Another bone of contention has been the disparity between the tax revenue the Spanish state gains from Catalunya, on the one hand, and the funding the Spanish state gives to the autonomous region.

Some years ago the Parlement declared their intention of holding a referendum on independence but the Government and the Spanish National Court declared that this would be illegal, going against the Constitution (the same thing happened in the Basque Country). In addition, an Army General declared that the Constitution could be enforced with tanks, if necessary. The Spanish Government, although distancing itself from the General’s comments, did not have him disciplined.

Every year since then has seen large national demonstrations for Catalan independence, including a huge human chain in 2003.

The historic ideological and political grounds, as noted earlier in passing, are not the only ones which make the surrender of Catalonia unthinkable for the Spanish ruling class. In terms of population (2016 figures), Catalunya’s 7,522,596 is 2nd in size for a region within the State and 16% of the State’s total. Catalunya’s land area of 32,108 km (12,397sq.mi) is 6.5% of the Spanish State’s Iberian land mass. But even worse, from the Spanish ruling class’ perspective, is that 23% of the state’s industry is in Catalunya, and in 2013 the region’s product was 203.62 billion euros (¢228 billion), according to the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia — about 20 percent of the Spanish state’s 2013 GDP of 1.04 trillion euros (¢1.17 trillion) and 25% of its exports.

And should the regions of the wider Paisos Catalans (“Catalan Countries), i.e Valencia, Balearic Islands, Rosello and Andorra, join Catalunya in independence, the Spanish state stands to lose 13% of its land mass and a huge part of its coastline and islands, along with 28% of its population.

 

THE SIGNS BLOWING IN THE WIND

It is not today or yesterday that this crisis began maturing – it’s been coming for a long time. The Spanish ruling class, for the most part, knows only one way to respond to pressure – and that’s to push back. If they can. And since they run the State ….

The much vaunted Transición after Franco was merely a change of clothes for the State and the ruling class. They hated the change but felt forced into it. First they had to legalise the hated social-democratic party, the PSOE and its trade unions, the Comisiones Obreras. Then they had to legalise the Partido Communista and their union, the UGT (over some objections, including that of the PSOE). But if those elements continued to oppose them, they couldn’t carry through their conjuring trick of becoming a “democracy”. So they ruling class legalised them and they were not let down by their new partners: collusion and collaboration was the order of the day, by both parties and their associated trade unions, right up to the present.

Then they had to gain the complicity of the local capitalist and middle classes of the imprisoned nations and in particular of the Basques and the Catalans. Regional autonomy was the obvious answer (and they took the precaution of splitting the southern Basque Country into two autonomous regions, under different political control) and, with the former opposition leaders of the PSOE and PCE batting for them, they passed the new Constitution with a majority (everywhere but in the Basque Country).

But enough! What is the matter with those Basques and Catalans? Will they never be happy to just be part of the “united, Christian and free” State? Apparently not. So no more concessions. Time to squeeze now, as their fathers mothers and grandfathers had done before them!

Last year they Spanish state tried to push the primacy of the Spanish language on to the Catalan education curriculum. Much of the Catalan political class and the teaching professions resisted – they already included Spanish as an official language along with Catalan (and Occitan and Catalan sign-language); what is it with those espaňolistas?

In 2015 the Catalans put together a right-left nationalist coalition for the elections, asking the electorate to vote on the issue of independence and, despite the opposition of the new Spanish populist party Podemos and the Izquierda Unida3, took 48% of the vote. In the Spanish State as a whole, the election results gave no party an overall majority and in fact resulted in the most fragmented results since 1977 during the Transición.

The 2016 elections made the PP the winners but without an overall majority (and later subject to corruption charges), saw a fall in the vote of the Podemos-Izquierda Unida vote and a crisis within the PSOE, which took the lowest vote of its existence. And the IMF demanded further austerity measures in the economy.

But Catalonia was simmering. After the 2015 elections, the financial services company JP Morgan predicted, in a research note following the vote, that the “conflict between Catalonia and the central government will not lose intensity. … In our view, a material offer to reframe the role of Catalonia within the national state … is needed to soften the rising radicalism in the pro-secession camp and restore the premises for a more constructive approach.”(see link below).

The ruling class in the Spanish state does not do “reframing” or “softening” very well. Unreformed and slightly-altered fascists who have corrupted their possible moderate partners4, they feel more at ease with the iron fist than the velvet glove.

Its threats and other measures cannot be carried out in time to prevent the referendum going ahead on October first. The town Mayors cannot be put on trial in time, much less convicted. The referendum site the State closed down has now shifted to a server outside the control of the Government. The Guardia Civil can disrupt the voting and seize ballot boxes but that will escalate the crisis even further, not to mention present a terrible picture of Spanish “democracy” to the world. The ballot box, after all, is the Holy Grail of the bourgeois democratic system.

 

BREAKUP OF THE SPANISH STATE?

The Spanish state has long been the one in Europe most vulnerable to fragmentation. It includes regions which are actually distinct nations, of which Catalunya is only one, with their separate cultures and languages.

Spanish State Regions Map

Regions/ nations of the Spanish state (image source: Internet). Note the northern band of possible independist nations from Galicia in the west to Catalonia in the east. Note also the Paisos Catalans regions taking up most of the western coast of the Peninsula from North to South. (Image source: Internet)

Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, has four provinces within the State’s borders and the native language is not even close to Castillian (Spanish) – in fact, unlike most others in Europe, it does not even belong to the Indo-European group of languages. A long struggle for independence has been taking place there too, with hundreds of political prisoners as a result serving time in jails across the the State. We can be sure that the Basques are watching developments in Catalunya with bated breath. The combined population of the two Basque autonomous regions exceed 2.83 million.

The nearly 1.5 million people of the Asturies region (Asturias in Castillian) consider themselves Celts and although their native vernacular is a Latin-based language, it is different from Castillian Spanish. More significant perhaps than the linguistic and musical difference with the “Spanish” is the history of resistance: their mining communities rose up against employers and the Spanish State during the early days of the Second Spanish Republic, the then Government of which sent General Franco to repress them (including shaving the hair of women supporters of the strike). In the Spanish Civil War the Asturians fought against the military-fascist uprising, rose up again in resistance against the victorious Franco regime and in very recent times fought against the closure of mines and miners’ unemployment.

Galicia is also a region of Celtic ancestry within the State with a well-developed traditional culture of music and dance and also has its own language, Gallego (56% speaking it as their first language) as well of course as Castillian. There is a movement for independence in Galicia which, although not major, is significant nevertheless and has its own trade union. The population is over 2,718,000.

Other regions with distinct languages and movements for independence from the Spanish state to one degree or another include Cantabria, Leon, Cadiz, Murcia, Andalucía and even Aragon and Castille, the two medieval kingdoms that led the defeat of the Moorish kingdom of El Andalus and went on to form the heart of the Kingdom of Spain. In addition, many of these regions or nations are contiguous to one another.

 

POSSIBLE EFFECTS ON EUROPE OUTSIDE THE SPANISH STATE

A rash of state break-ups followed the fall of the Soviet Union and it is not impossible that Catalonian independence could have a similar effect.

France:

A part of the Catalan nation is inside French territory, although it holds only 1% of the population of the French state. More seriously for the French state are the other nationalities which might also take into their heads to secede.

The three Basque provinces, for example, are connected by culture, ethnicity and to an extent ideology with the other four Basque provinces on the southern side of the Spanish border. Biarritz and Bayonne are the main towns and the total area of the three provinces is 2,869 km², with a low-density population of 295,970.

Brittany, with 4.23% of the total territory of the French state (excluding its colonies), is a Celtic nation within the state, with a national language of Breton (related to Welsh). The population of the nation is 4,550,400. Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Nant

The Langue D’Oc area has a population of 3,650,000 people (as of 1999 census), 52% of these in the Languedoc-Roussillon région, 35% in the Mid-Pyrénées région, 8% in the Rhone-Alpes région, and 5% in theAuvergne région. Although this area is no longer administered as a province, it has a historical and cultural (including linguistic) identity, with Toulouse widely recognised as its capital.

Then there is Corsica, speaking Corse and never entirely reconciled to being a part of France. The Mediterranean island is not strong economically nor large in population (330,000) but it does occupy a position of strategic importance between France and Italy and near both the larger islands of the Italian state.

What makes the scenario of a wide range of independence-seeking of nations within the French state more painful to contemplate for that State is that many of those nations are contiguous to one another, forming a wide swathe from east to west across the southern bart of the present state and taking in much of its seaboard on the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. It also potentially wipes out its border with the Spanish state, forcing all land traffic to pass through a number of other states before reaching either Spain or France.

Italy:

What we know today as Italy was a mass of provinces and city states that were united finally only in 1871 (some date it to 1918), after a period of many uprisings and wars. Already in Italy today there is a huge difference between the industrial north and the agricultural south with its unemployment and poverty, a difference so great that some have described the regions as two different countries.

And there is Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean, whose people have long thought of themselves as different to the rest of Italy and in particular the north. The population of Sicily is 5,048,553 (8.3% of the total of the Italian state), the majority of them speaking Siciliano, a separate language to Italian. Sicily also has a huge diaspora.

The second-largest Mediterranean island is Sardinia, where languages different to Italian are spoken and whose people have always considered themselves distinct from Italy. The population there is 1,650,003. a relatively low figure out of a total for the State of 60.5 million; nevertheless this island too is of strategic importance.

The United Kingdom cannot be left out of consideration either. Scotland already has its own Parliament and a somewhat different legal system to that of England & Wales but that has not totally satisfied Scottish nationalist aspirations. Other Celtic nations within the UK include Wales and Cornwall and of course the 6-County colony in Ireland, the scene of a 30-year war against British rule less than two decades ago.

Of course, the effects will not be felt only on European multi-nation states. An ongoing conflict with Catalunya, with the addition of perhaps other national struggles within the state, allied to internal struggles against evictions and austerity, in an atmosphere of financial scandals, could bring the state down. The Spanish State is an important NATO ally in terms of bases and strategic location. Even if it did not collapse, the instability arising out of a state of siege in two significant areas of the statewould be great and ripples – or perhaps giant waves — would reach throughout Europe.

 

WILL IT COME TO THAT?

No-one can answer that question for sure. The Spanish state is determined to prevent Catalonian independence and the majority Catalan political class have already gone beyond where many expected them to in resistance. They have stated that if the necessary majority votes “Sí” to independence, that they will move immediately to give effect to that decision. In addition, the political class for independence is acting with huge popular support and there are signs of independent popular mobilisation – the last time that happened on a major scale in Catalunya was during the 2nd Spanish Republic when there was popular socialist and anarchist workers’ uprising.

Cartoon by DB

If the people push the issue against Spanish intransigence, it is hard to see how it can end in any way but in armed conflict – street resistance against Spanish repression with tanks, soldiers and the paramilitary Guardia Civil. The Mossos d’Escuadra, the 16,800-plus repressive police under the Catalan autonomous region’s council, the Generalitat, might split. Urban and rural municipal Catalunyan police are likely to retire from the conflict or to side with the Catalan resistance.

The population of the rest of the Spanish state might then stand back and watch …. or uprisings could break out in other areas, including left-wing working class areas of Madrid suffering austerity and where the Spanish ruling parties are seen as corrupt and in league with the bankers against the people.

Could the rulers of the EU afford to stand back in such a scenario? Would their own populations allow them a free hand to intervene, or not?

We live in interesting times that might, contrary to the Chinese curse, have very beneficial outcomes.

 

end

 

 

SOURCES:

JP Morgan advice: https://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/05/catalonia-is-critical-contributor-to-spains-economy.html

Catalan economy and Spanish state debt: https://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/05/catalonia-is-critical-contributor-to-spains-economy.html

Video of giant Catalan demonstration in Barcelona by Le Figaro newspaper http://video.lefigaro.fr/figaro/video/mobilisation-massive-des-separatistes-catalans-a-barcelone/5572122761001/

Catalan referendum websiteref1oct.eu and ref1oct.cat

Private communication with Catalans

Also Wikipedia pages on the Basque Country and various regions/ nations of the Spanish, French and Italian states.

 

FOOTNOTES

1  Many Basques and Catalans will say that what they suffered was not a “civil war” but a Spanish fascist invasion.

2  Name of their regional parliament in Catalan.

3  A Communist Party-Trotskyist alliance, often fragmenting and shifting; it is generally despised by the rest of the Left within the State and by the pro-independence parties, the latter because the IU is always against national independence, calling instead for “the unity of the Spanish working class.”

4  It was the social-democratic PSOE government that ran the GAL assassination squads against the Basque pro-independence movement, carrying out operations of both sides of the French border. Carrillo, leader of the Communist Party who took it through the Transición, was expelled from his party after his collusion with Spanish fascists and coup plotters was exposed.

SPANISH POLICEMAN TORTURER ON UN COMMITTEE FOR PREVENTION OF TORTURE

From FB page of Dublin Basque Solidarity Committee

SPANISH STATE APPOINTS POLICE OFFICER CONVICTED OF TORTURE TO UNITED NATIONS COMMITTEE FOR THE PREVENTION OF TORTURE.

Convicted Guardia Civil torturer of prisoner, Jose Maria De las Cuevas Carretero, appointed by the Spanish State to the UN Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
(Photo sourced from Gara newspaper)

No-one could accuse the Spanish authorities of failing to appreciate irony.

In 1997, in one of the rare cases of the Spanish authorities charging a police officer with torture and even rarer of conviction, Captain (then a Sergeant) José María De las Cuevas Carretero, along with fellow Guardia Civil officers Manuel Sánchez Corbi and Antonio Lozano García were found guilty of torturing Basque ETA suspect Kepa Urra when they detained him in 1992. A further three police accused were found not guilty but the medical evidence on Mr. Urra’s admission to hospital six hours after his arrest made it impossible for the Bizkaya court not to find his captorsguilty. Despite the police officers’ denials, the three were found guilty of having taken Mr. Urra to a deserted spot after this arrest and there, while he was handcuffed, to have beaten him with a blunt object and dragged him along the ground. They were sentenced to four years in prison and barred for six years from public office (a common accompaniment to prison sentence in the Spanish State).

However, one year later the Spanish Supreme Tribunal reduced the prison sentence of each to one year which meant they were free to go but with the public office disqualification still in force. The following year, they were pardoned by the Spanish Minister of Justice of the incoming PP Government of Aznar and Mr.De las Cuevas Carretero carried on with his police career, rising to the rank of Captain and participating in fora of the State and internationally.

Mr. De las Cuevas Carretero, who is a qualified lawyer, has been lecturing of the treatment of prisoners and about corruption. And who could say that he is not eminently qualified to lecture on those subjects? Or to represent the Spanish State authorities on those issues?

(News and photo source: Gara, also some background Internet research)

15 YEARS PRISON THREATENED FOR BASQUE YOUTHS IN BAR ALTERCATION PROVOKED BY SPANISH POLICE

BREAKING NEWS …………… BREAKING NEWS …………… BREAKING NEWS ……………

FIFTEEN YEARS PRISON THREATENED FOR BASQUE YOUTHS IN BAR ALTERCATION PROVOKED BY SPANISH POLICE – SIX ALREADY IN JAIL

 

Monday 15 November 2016

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

Six Basque youths are in jail without bail tonight and altogether twelve face fifteen years in prison, in a case arising out of an altercation in a bar in the southern Basque Country (i.e under Spanish occupation) involving two officers of the Guardia Civil (Spanish militarised police force) in Altsasu in the province of Nafarroa (Navarra).

Protest demonstration in Altsasu tonight. The slogan says: "FREE THE DETAINED!" (Source: Basque contacts)

Protest demonstration in Altsasu tonight. The slogan says: “FREE THE DETAINED!”
(Source: Basque contacts)

Altsasu is known as a town with a particularly strong history of Basque resistance and a continuing sympathy among the population. The town also has, by no means accidentally, one of the strongest barracks of the Guardia Civil.

On the night of 15th October, the two male Guardia Civil officers, off duty and with their female partners, went into Taberna Koxka, a well-known bar and night spot frequented by the Abertzale (pro-Basque Independence) Left, where they behaved provocatively. Inevitably the policemen were challenged by some of the patrons of the bar and a scuffle broke out.

No injuries were sustained by the police although one of them claimed an injury to his ankle, a story that fell flat when it was revealed that he was already on sick leave at the time of the incident due to an injury to his ankle. In addition, the Guardia Civil report itself, though claiming the officers’ behaviour was non-provocative and peaceful, did not claim police injuries and the province’s “autonomous” police force (but very hostile to the Abertzale Left), the Policía Foral, also denied there had been any injuries.

The pro-Spanish media not only spread police lies but added to them, one surreal story alleging that the quietly relaxing police officers and their partners had been attacked by 50 Abertzale Left youth throwing martial arts punches and kicks. Tragically, such lies will find a ready audience in much of the Spanish state outside the Basque and Catalan countries.

At first the police classified the incident as a “hate crime” but the State Prosecution upgraded its classification to “terrorism”.

The eight youths were detained in police raids this morning and taken to the National Court in Madrid although, upon learning that they had been named by the Guardia Civil in a list of 12 people involved, they had already voluntarily presented themselves to testify before a judge in Irunea who, however, could not be found. Despite that earlier voluntary attendance, arisk of fleeing” was given as the primary reason for refusing them bail. Two others were released under stringent reporting to police conditions and two others, who also presented themselves voluntarily to be tried with the others, were told to return to court tomorrow.

Guardia Civil provocatively driving through an Abertzale Left demonstration. The people in costume are Zapantzarak, traditional performers particularly in Spring festivals but often participating in Abertzale Left events also. (Source: Basque contacts).

Guardia Civil provocatively driving through an Abertzale Left demonstration.
The people in costume are Zapantzarak, traditional performers particularly in Spring festivals but often participating in Abertzale Left events also.
(Source: Basque contacts).

“Terrorism”

The Prosecution has asked for the Basque youths to be tried under Article 573 of the new Penal Code, set aside for crimes of “terrorism”, the definition of which even the UN has declared to be “excessively imprecise and broad” and which “may criminalise behaviour which is not terrorist.” Conviction under Article 573 can carry a sentence of 15 years in jail.

Tonight in Altsasu, Basque youth took to the streets in peaceful but militant protest demonstration (see photo).

This incident is not without a context: in recent months the town has seen hundreds of Guardia Civil driving through the town at various times and a demonstration organised by Abertzale Left on 22nd October was penetrated by Guardia Civil vehicles (see photo). The strongest anti-repression organisation in the Basque Country, “Ospa Mugimendua”, has an active following in the town.

Guardia Civil has his photo taken mocking an event organised by the anti-repression organisation Ospa Mugimendua. (Source: Basque contacts).

Guardia Civil has his photo taken mocking an event organised by the anti-repression organisation Ospa Mugimendua.
(Source: Basque contacts).

The Guardia Civil, although established in the Spanish state in 1844, is a militarised police force (type of carabinieri) associated in the minds of most Basques, Catalans and progressive Spaniards with the Spanish Civil War and with General Franco, whom the force enthusiastically supported. The force has a long history of violent repression, torture, murder and even rape. After the “reform” of the State with the death of Franco, the force was neither abolished nor reformed. The Guardia Civil is also much loved by the Spanish Right and the “Association of Victims of Terrorism” (sic), which regularly demands increased repression against Basques and Basque political prisoners, is mostly composed of relatives of the Guardia.

end

(Sources: Naiz and contacts in Euskal Herria)

BASQUE PIRATES ON THE WAVES

Diarmuid Breatnach

One of my appointments on a recent trip to Euskal Herria, the Basque Country, was with a “free radio station”, with a dual purpose: to learn about their operation and to give them an interview about my thinking on the political phenomena known to most people as “peace processes”. The radio station in question is Zintilik and located in the Orereta area of Errenteria town, not far north from Donosti/ San Sebastian, in the souther Basque province of Gipuzkoa and my hosts were Hektor Gartzia and Julen Etxegarai. 

View of side of building which houses Zintilik. Photo D.Breatnach

View of side of building which houses Zintilik. Photo D.Breatnach

Julen and Hektor setting up for the interview Photo D.Breatnach

Julen and Hektor setting up for the interview
Photo D.Breatnach

Not long after I arrived, one of my hosts related his memory of events in the area after a local ETA fighter had been killed. The Guardia Civil had swamped the area to prevent an “homenaje” (an event honouring the dead) taking place, guns pointing at men and women; the children, of which he had been one, gathered into their grandparents’ house ….. He showed me where the police vehicle had parked at the end of the street, his sweeping hand indicating the places where the armed police had stood.

THE “FREE RADIO”

The “free radio station”, also known as “pirate radio” has been broadcasting for 32 years, which I find amazing. It began broadcasting from an “okupa”, an occupation of a private empty building, turning it into an alternative social and political centre. Under popular pressure, the local authority, under the control at the time of the PSE, i.e. (Spanish unionist social democratic party), granted them the building they currently use.

Front of Zintilik building. Photo D.Breatnach

Front of Zintilik building from the street.
Photo D.Breatnach

Originally built to house a smithy, for some reason the building never saw service in that capacity. It is in my estimation an attractive building in a traditional-enough local style, of thick stone, compact without being squat. It has an attractive back yard, no doubt intended at one time to receive the horses with hooves in need of iron shoes, fitted and nailed. The roof is tiled in what seems the usual way for the Basque Country.

Zintilik broadcasts 24 hours a day, which it is able to do using repeats.  The Zintilik collective owns its equipment and funds itself through fund-raising concerts, txosnak (stalls/ marquees) at festivals and occasional donations. They run advertisements for

Julen and Hektor again. Photo D.Breatnach

Julen and Hektor again.
Photo D.Breatnach

local community groups and announce events but accept no commercial sponsorship – nor does their wish for independence stop there. “We don’t receive any funding from the local authority or from the Basque Autonomous Government,” declares Julen, “nor do we wish to.”

Funding from such sources comes with strings attached”, adds Hektor.

Or one becomes dependent on it and unable to function without it”, further explains Julen.

Partial scenic view from the back of the building. A block of flats to right just out of shot does restrict it however. (Photo D.Breatnach}

Partial scenic view from the back of the building. A block of flats to right just out of shot does restrict it however.
(Photo D.Breatnach}

As a further illustration of self-reliance, they tell me how they climbed on to the roof of their building to repair a leak, rather than ask the municipal authorities to do it. And it was the same when branches of a nearby plane tree needed cutting to prevent them knocking against the radio aerial on windy days.

We know it’s work that the local authority owes us and that we and the rest of the community pay their salaries but we prefer not to depend on them,” they explain.

As an example of how dependency – although of a different sort – can undermine a community resource, they relate the story of building which was occupied in order to be used as a community resource. As time passed, many were using it as a social resource but less people were volunteering for the work involved in maintenance at any level. Appeals of the four or so committed people who ended up doing everything fell on the deaf ears of the clientele until one day the four locked the centre doors after the last user had left for the evening and, the next day, handed the keys over to the local authority.

The back yard to the building where we ate a meal after the interview. Photo D.Breatnach

The back yard to the building where we ate a meal after the interview.  The structure there is an outhouse.  (Photo D.Breatnach)

As you imagine, this was a great shock to the clientele,” they tell me, “but it was the result of their own lack of commitment to the project.”

I reflect that many activists will identify in one way or another with that sad experience.

RECORDING THE INTERVIEW

Julen and Hektor discuss the format and general content of the interview with me and map it out, do sound checks and then we go to it. Hektor, who knows quite a bit about the more recent Irish history and about the current situation in the Six Counties, is my interviewer, while Julen monitors from the control room and occasionally joins in with comment or question.

Interview room. Photo D.Breatnach

Interview room.
Photo D.Breatnach

For music in between sections of interview, Irish Ways and Irish Laws (John Gibbs) and Where Is Our James Connolly? (Patrick Galvin) have been chosen, both sung by Christy Moore and Joe McDonnell (Brian Warfield), by the Wolfe Tones.

They also invited me to sing Back Home in Derry, Christy Moore’s lyrics arrangement of Bobby Sands’ poem – but to the air I composed for it. I am happy to oblige – I enjoy singing but it is more than that: I want the air I composed to get a hearing. Christy Moore used Gordon Lightfoot’s air to The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald for Sands’ poem and, excellent though that fit is, especially with Moore’s chorus, I think that the poem (and its author) deserves an air of its own.

Recording room. Photo D.Breatnach

Recording room.
Photo D.Breatnach

Although the main focus of the interview was the phenomenon of “peace (sic) processes”, we discussed aspects of Irish, Spanish, Palestinian and South African recent history, including the 1916 Rising in Ireland, along with the backgrounds to the songs chosen. For the most part, I left it to my interviewers to draw conclusions relating to their experience of political processes in their own country.

FESTIVALS AND STORMS

Upstairs in the broadcasting/ recording and interview rooms, all is in good order: equipment and facilities. After the interview, I note that downstairs, in the main space, things are a in a bit of a mess, for which Julen apologises (he has never seen the state of my flat).

Some of the community groups we support store their placards and banners here,” he says. “Besides, we’ve just finished our local festival and everyone relaxes, dumps their equipment and goes on holiday.” Throughout the Summer and early Autumn, each village, town, city and even area will have its own week-long festival for which the community groups and campaigns will organise and participate.

Down in Donostia (San Sebastian), to where Hektor and Julen accompanied me after we ate the food they had prepared, the city was in the midst of its own festival and was heaving with people – tourists from everywhere, it seemed, as well as Basques.

With that picturesque bay and its island in our background, they got a passing young woman to take our photo, the three of us – the conversation with her was in Euskara only. I held up the placards I had prepared for the photo in turn, one in Irish and another in English, supporting the Moore Street quarter in Dublin.

R-L: Julen, Diarmuid, Hektor. Donosti bay in the background with island partly visible. Storm building in the sky.

R-L: Julen, Diarmuid, Hektor. Donosti bay in the background with island partly visible. Storm building in the sky.

Save M St Quarter Donosti backgroundDark clouds were gathering overhead and on the horizon the sky was a baleful orange. A storm or at least a downpour was being promised and, as we turned back towards the bus station, the first drops began to fall. In the humid heat, the light rain was welcome for awhile but for part of my solitary journey back to Bilbo, it formed a silvery curtain in the coach’s headlights and streamed down the windows.

I remembered being told that one can frequently witness a violent storm in the Donosti bay while not so far away in Bilbao, as a result of local conditions, all is calm. As for winter storms in Donosti, the waves hitting and surging over the seafront and piers have to be seen to be believed; occasionally the sea reaches inland, floods cellars and converts parked cars into boats or semi-submarines.

The rain eased off and stopped about half-way through my journey and when I got into San Mames station in Bilbo, the streets were not even wet.

end

Clenched Fists 3 Tzintilik Irratia 2016

ON THE BASQUE LANGUAGE TRAIN

Diarmuid Breatnach

 

On the platform at Mundaka there are only a few to catch the 9.18 a.m. train to Bilbao. Mundaka is a popular coastal resort town in Bizkaia province, southern Basque Country.  “Egun on” (“good day”), I greet those on the platform in Euskara in passing, the Basque language, and they reply the same.

Bizkaia Train & Notice on Track

Train on the Atxuri (Bilbao)-Bermeo line. Note the warning sign to bottom left of image, in Euskera first and Castillian second. (Photo sourced on Internet).

A young couple with two little boys come on to the only platform (for both directions) and I think I hear the woman speaking to the boys in Euskara. But soon, I make out some Castillian (Spanish) words; however it is not unusual to hear some Castillian words and even phrases scattered through Euskara conversation, in the southern Basque Country, at any rate. But no, I can tell now that the conversation between mother and child is definitely all in Castillian – I must have been mistaken earlier, when I thought they were speaking in Euskara.

Mountains over Mundaka rooftop

A view from a Mundaka building a number of stories up. The port is out of sight to the left, the station behind. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

Casa de los Ingleses

“Casa de Los Ingleses”, a beautiful if rather gothic-looking old house, residence of an English family with business interests locally many years ago. I passed it on the short walk from the town to the station. Behind it there were plots being worked for vegetables, all due to disappear beneath a new car park construction. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The Servants House

The residence of the servants of the Casa de Los Ingleses, a lovely building in its own right.  Its demolition is planned to make way for a new construction (see design in next photo) — my guide encouraged me to write a letter of protest to the municipality.  (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The construction planned to replace the "servants' house" after the latter has been demolished. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

The construction planned to replace the “servants’ house” after the latter has been demolished. (Photo: D.Breatnach)

“Miao, miao” says the smallest boy, pointing at some feral cats dozing near the platform. “Bai, katua” replies the mother and a flood of Euskara follows, both boys and mother and occasionally father too conversing in Euskara. And so they continue until the southbound train arrives and everyone gets on, except one man, presumably waiting for a northbound train to Bermeo.

On our journey southwards, soon passing alongside salt marshlands, I note that the names of the stations are in Euskara only: Itsasbegi-Busturia, Axpe-Busturia (in the broad estuary of the Urdebai river), San Kristobal Busturia, Forua, Instituto Gernika, Gernika….

The Wikitravel entry for Gernika translates it to the Castillian “Guernica” and opens with this: Basque town which was the site of the first airborne bombing attack on a civilian town during the Spanish civil war. The bombing, by the Condor Legion of Germany’s Luftwaffe in 1937, inspired Picasso to paint the landmark cubist work Guernica, now on display at the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid.”

Well, yes, but one might add for clarity that it was done as part of Franco’s fascist offensive and that the fascist press later blamed it on Asturian Anarchist “fire-bombers”. And one might update it by commenting that the Basques have asked for Picasso’s painting to be located in Gernika itself, a request which the Spanish state authorities, the political descendants of the fascist victors of that war, have refused.

Train tracks Axpe Busturia

Train tracks from Axpe Busturia, the estuary to the left and salt marshes on both sides.  (Source: Internet).

Onwards again, the next stop is Lurgorri-Gernika. At the next after that, Zugast station, a middle-aged man gets on with Berria, the all-Euskara newspaper, under his arm. This periodical, being in many ways the replacement of another newspaper, Egunkaria, has a noteworthy connection with history.

Founded in 1990, Egunkaria was the first all-Euskera daily newspaper in the world; it had a left-nationalist editorial line and a journalistic outlook, which led it to report ETA statements alongside those from Spanish unionist political parties and from the State. The Basque language was no longer illegal or banned since the transición, post-General Franco, when the fascist Spanish oligarchy brought the leaderships of the social democratic party and the Communist Party on board, along with their respective trade union leaders — and called it “Democracy”.

But on 20th February 2003, the Spanish State’s militarised police, the Guardia Civil, raided the newspaper’s premises, seized records, machines and closed down the periodical. They also raided the homes or arrested at the building a total of ten people associated with the newspaper, at least four of which were tortured subsequently. For one of those, the manager, a gay man, the torture included sexual violation.

Massive protest demonstrations ensued from an outraged Basque population. The arrested were released on bail.

On 15 April 2010, seven years later, the defendants were finally acquitted on all charges relating to ‘terrorist’ connections and the judges added that there had been no justification for the closure of the newspaper in the first place.

By then, Egunkaria was beyond recovery and anyway Berria had stepped in to occupy the niche (apparently with the blessing of the Egunkaria team). The case against the State for compensation for the loss of the newspaper and also for torture remains open, sixteen years later. The Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg found the Spanish state guilty of not investigating the manager’s complaint of being tortured and ordered compensation paid. It did not, however, as it usually does not, find the state guilty of the torture itself. Of course, torture is difficult to prove, particularly when the state in question keeps political detainees for five days incommunicado, without access even to independent medical practitioners, while its police goes about getting their “confessions”

On the train journey now, the next stop has the delightful-sounding name of Muxika. This causes some amusement to a teenage boy in a nearby seat, accompanied by an older woman – they have been talking in Castillian only since they got on. I wonder are they aware that in June 2013 José Mujica, President of Uruguay until last year, visited the townland that gave rise to his surname. Mujica was presented with a key to the town by the Mayor, who is of the Basque Abertzale Left party Bildu.

The train pulls out of Muxika, then on to Zugastieta-Muxika station as we continue running southward through thick woodlands, occasional industrial parks and small allotments where an occasional middle-aged man tends to his large tomatoes, the small elongated sweet peppers of the region, courgettes, climbing beans …..

Onwards to Morebieta Geralekua before the line takes a sharp twist north-eastwards to more woodlands, rivers, streams and mountains at Lemoa, Bedia, Usansolo, Zuhatsu Galdakoa. Now the built-up areas of Ariz Basauri followed by the contrast of the picturesque Etxebarri before a southward curve to Bolueta and then eastward, to run along the Nervion river to Atxuri station in Bilbo (Bilbao), journey’s end.

All of the stations along this route were named in the Basque language – not one had a Castillian version showing (although there will be plenty of that in streets and squares in Bilbao). The public announcements on this train, as on their counterparts in the Irish 26 Counties, are bilingual but with this difference – on the Basque train, they are always in Euskara first, Castillian second. Likewise with the signage. One is never under any doubt about which language is being given primacy there, nor indeed here, where the English version comes first and, when in text, is in a more dominant type or more contrasting colour.

The Irish language is being derailed even as, to mix metaphors, it is being given lip service. Further down the tracks, unless some urgent repair work is undertaken, lies the final stop – the cemetery of our national language.

end

MY BASQUE FAMILY AND MUSHROOMS

Diarmuid Breatnach

Maribel Eginoa Cisneros died on the 13th of this August in the Santutxu district of Bilbao. She was many things – a democratic Basque patriot, dancer, choir singer, herbalist, mycologist, carer, wife, mother ….

I and two of my siblings travelled to attend the funeral. For me it was a farewell to a warm, intelligent and cultured person who, along with her husband, two of her daughters and a son-in-law, had been very welcoming to me. More than that or because of that, I thought of them as “my Basque family”.

Somewhere I have a Basque family related through blood and marriage but I don’t know them. Different loyalties and some German blood during the Spanish Civil War took my mother out of the Basque Country; the ties were cut and left behind. My mother became a woman in Madrid, where she met my father soon after.

Although they never met, it was because of my mother that I had first met Maribel. My mother, Lucila Helmann Menchaca (the Basques spell it Mentxaka), was born in Algorta, in the Getxo district, not far from Bilbao and spent her early childhood there. How her parents met is another story but Luci grew up bilingual in Castillian (Spanish) and German, with a Basque mother who hardly knew any Euskera (Basque) and a German father. All of Luci’s children, the five boys and one girl, knew of their mother’s childhood in the Basque Country and as we grew older, a desire grew with it to see where she had been born; each of us individually making the pilgrimage.

ONGI ETORRI – BASQUE WELCOME

I was a total stranger and low on funds on my first visit to the Basque Country. I had one contact, a woman I had met only a couple of times when she worked as an au pair in Dublin; she promised to help me get based and I arranged to phone her when I arrived. But the flight was delayed and then could not land at Bilbao airport – too much cloud, the pilot said – and we would land instead at Zaragossa, over 154 miles (248 Km) away. There the passengers had to wait for a coach and eventually arrived in Bilbao in the early hours of the morning. Of course, I had not booked an hotel, so the driver of the last taxi available tried a few without success and then brought me to the Nervión, a four-star hotel over its namesake river, dark and unlovely with a nightly rate that hit me in the gut.

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast

Maribel and Ziortza on a visit to the Cantabrian coast (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Next morning I phoned my contact, Ziortza and she came to the Nervión and waited while I checked out. I expected to be brought to a cheap hotel or hostel but was instead brought to her family’s home and there, for the first time, I met Ziortza’s parents, Maribel Eginoa and Josemari Echeverria (women don’t change their surnames now when they marry there). I was welcomed, fed and shown to what was to be my room during my stay. It was Ziortza’s, who moved in with her parents – the other two sisters lived in their own apartments with their partners and children. I was fed wonderfully every day too.

I was stunned by the depth of the hospitality from people I did not know, a trait I have encountered again and again among many Basques I have met. Nor was that all. Ziortza took me on her days off on excursions to some different places and towns and her sister Gurrutze and husband Gorka took me on a tour along the Bay of Biscay before turning uphill to iconic Gernika (Spanish spelling “Guernica”). Ziortza also gave me instructions on how to get to Algorta by local train, where my hand-drawn map could take me to where my mother had lived, a trip I preferred to make alone.

The next occasion I returned to Bilbao, this time to begin to know the southern Basque Country, I stayed in their apartment again, in the same room, but this time without discommoding them, since Ziortza had moved out to her own place.

 

THE UNEXPECTED ONE

Maribel and Josémaria were fairly comfortable and retired when I met them but they had some hard times behind them. Josémari’s father had been a Basque nationalist and fought against Franco, a fact that did not escape the victorious Franco authorities. When it came to time for the Spanish military service obligatory for males (much resisted in the Basque Country and now

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) -- Maribel Eginoa

Only a few months before her death (hard to believe) — Maribel Eginoa (photo Maribel’s family)

abolished throughout the State), they sent Josémari to one of the worst places to which they could send the son of a Basque nationalist – Madrid. His superior officers took pleasure in reminding him of his father and of what they thought of Basque nationalists (or even Basques in general). For the couple, it was a difficult separation but they married as soon as he was finished with the Spanish Army. Maribel was 21 years of age.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde ("the northern country"), the part of the Basque Country ruled by France.

Pyrenean landscape in Iparralde (“the northern country”, the part of the Basque Country ruled by France). (photo from Internet)

In their early years together they often travelled to Iparralde (“the northern country”), the Basque part under French rule, with a Basque dance group called Dindirri. The French state has no tolerance for notions of Basque independence but does not harry the movement as does the Spanish state in Hegoalde (“the southern country”). Maribel was fluent in French as well as in Castillian.

Born ten years after the most recent of another four siblings, Maribel was the result of an unexpected pregnancy. “It was destiny,” commented one of her daughters. “The unexpected one would be the one to take care of everyone in the future.” One of Maribel’s siblings had died after a few days, another at the age of 19 due to surgical negligence, another had cerebral palsy. Maribel’s sister herself had an intellectually challenged boy and, when she emigrated with her husband and daughter, left him in Maribel’s care. As Maribel’s mother grew old and infirm, she took care of her too. Her brother with cerebral palsy, although in a home for his specialist care, spent weeks at a time in the family home. And another relative came to stay with them too, for awhile. Maribel looked after everyone.

Of course, her husband Josémari helped, as did her daughters. And they all accepted that this was how things were. And to add to that, the couple visited friends and neighbours in hospital.

LANGUAGE AND POLITICS

When I met Maribel and Josémari, I heard them speak to their daughters in Euskera — the Basque native language. But they themselves had not been raised speaking it – they went to classes to learn the language and raised their children with it. Speaking or learning Euskera was illegal under Franco except for some dispensation to Basque Catholic clergy. It was the latter who founded the first illicit “ikastolak”1 to teach Euskera and later these were set up by lay people too. The ikastola, teaching all subjects except language through Euskera, is now the school type attended by the majority in the southern Basque Country and is mainstream in the Euskadi or CAV administrative area, encompassing the provinces of Bizkaia, Alava and Guipuzkoa.

Most of "my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze's sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza.

Most of “my Basque family: Front R-L: Aimar and Markel, Gurrutze’s sons; Back R-L: Gurrutze, Maider, Josemari, Maddi & Ziortza. (Photo from Maribel’s family)

Under Spanish state repression the old Basque Nationalist Party was decimated and although still in existence, its youth wing became impatient with what they perceived as the timidity of their elders.  The PNV youth found a similar impatience among leftish Basque youth who had picked up on the vibrations of the youth and student movement of the 1960s. These youth brought to the table the narratives of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, mixed with socialist ideas of the Cuban and Algerian revolutions. Thus was Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Homeland and Freedom) born — doubly illegal, as they espoused Basque self-determination and socialism. And so they were spied upon by the Guardia Civil, harassed, arrested, tortured, jailed … after nine years of which ETA took up arms.

Of the Spanish state’s main political parties today, the ultra-right Partido Popular and the social democratic PSOE, the first receives very little electoral support in the CAV administrative area and the second always less than the total of Basque parties. Maribel and Josémari, like most of patriotic Basque society, were presented with the choice of supporting the PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) or the Abertzale Left, the broad political movement of which ETA was a part. The PNV was known for jobbery and corruption and collusion with the Spanish state so of course Maribel and Josemari raised their family in loose allegiance to the Abertzale Left, attending many marches of the movement, public meetings, pickets and now and then hearing gunshots and explosions, hearing of people they knew going into clandestinity and others arrested, tortured and jailed. Everyone knew someone who became a political prisoner (and that is still largely the case) — a neighbour, work colleague, a past pupil. One of Maribel’s daughters saw most of her quadrilla – a small circle of Basque school friends who typically stay close throughout life – go to jail; part of her life is now organised around making visits to jails throughout the Spanish and French states, thanks to the cruel dispersal policy.

At the funeral service in the packed Iglesia del Karmelo in the Bilbao district of Santutxu, I remembered Maribel’s warm personality and hospitality. In fact it was around that hospitality that I unwittingly caused a rift between us. By the last time I returned to stay with them, I had become active in Basque solidarity work in Ireland. Beset with communication difficulties with the organisations in Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) and desperate for regular sources of accurate information, I was essentially based at their home while seeking out and establishing contacts every day. Maribel, as a considerate Basque hostess, wanted to know in advance whether I was going to be available for meals and I sometimes forgot to tell her when I was not. I also didn’t get into the Basque rhythm of lunch, supper and main meal. In my focus on finding needed contacts I just didn’t appreciate the distress I was causing and that it might have appeared, as one daughter told me, that I was treating her parent’s apartment as an hotel. In subsequent annual visits to Bilbao, staying with others, I tried to make amends but though we remained friendly, it was never as before. Some rips you can darn but the fabric is never what it was.

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao (photo from Internet)

Iglesia del Karmelo, in Santutxu, Bilbao

In Maribel’s funeral service, the daughters led the singing of the “Agur Jaunak”2; I had the words printed out but didn’t recognise the air at first so by the time I caught on, was unable to find the place to join in. The first time I heard it, sung in performance by Maribel and Josemaria in their choir in another church, the song brought tears to my eyes. The couple belonged to two choirs and had even performed abroad; for many years choirs had been a big thing in the Basque Country but are not so popular now. The Agur Jaunak is a moving piece of music and the final words of farewell, now laden with additional meaning, brought forth my tears at the funeral too (and in fact bring some to my eyes now even recalling it).

When I got back to Dublin I decided to write an article dedicated to Maribel. And to the Basque love of mushrooms. Maribel and her husband were both mycologists (students of fungi) and she was a great cook too. At the time the urge to write struck me, it was autumn, the optimum time for fungi, when the weather is still fairly warm in much of Europe, but also damp.

 

MOUNTAIN PEOPLE AND MUSHROOMS

The Basques imagine themselves in many forms but the most enduring is probably as a mountain people. Not all the country is mountainy, of course – it has lowlands along most of its coastline (yes, they sometimes see themselves as mariners too) and even some highlands are plateau rather than mountain. But. Mountain people, nevertheless. My mother told us that Basque patriots when they died were often cremated and their ashes carried up the mountains inside the ikurrina, the Basque national flag. On reaching the top, the flag would be shook out, consigning the ashes to the winds. The Basque irrintzi cry, like yodelling, is typical of methods that use the voice to communicate from mountain to mountain. Climbing is a popular sport and so is hill walking, often also done as a form of youth political and social activity.

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast -- with mountains visible behind

Mundaka coastline in Bizkaia province on south-eastern coast — with mountains visible behind (photo Wikipedia)

Even among Basques living on the coast or other lowlands, it is hard to meet a native who has not been to the mountains and high valleys and many go there regularly, sometimes in organised groups. One of the reasons they go, apart from reinforcing their cultural affinity, is to pick edible fungi. I am told that there are 100 edible species known in the Basque Country and that “between 40 and 50 varieties are eaten regularly”.3

As opposed to other regional administrations, a fee does not have to be paid in the CAV administration (three of the southern Basque provinces) to collect these mushrooms, although breaching rules can cost between 30 and 250 euros in fines. The regulations specify a collection limit of two kilograms per person per day and one is obliged to use a knife to remove and a wicker basket to store.

Sadly, illegal commercial operations have cashed in on the love of mushrooms in the Spanish state and gangs have been discovered recruiting poorly-paid migrants or unemployed natives to collect without a licence in administrations where such is a requirement, breaching conservation rules and running the risk of arrest. These gangs are less likely to succeed in the southern Basque Country, a society highly organised on a voluntary and local basis and in general quite conscious of the importance of conservation.

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife

Display of edible fungi from the New Forest, England, showing the conservation-friendly collecting basked and knife (photo from Internet)

Further northwards, 25 km. from Iruňa (Pamplona), is the Harana (valley) Ultzama, a natural reserve, over half of it thick woodland. It is in Nafarroa (Navarre), the fourth southern Basque province.

A mycological park over 6,000 hectares has been marked out, a great luxury for mushroom-lovers. …. The park’s information point, in the municipality of Alkotz, indicates the routes where these mushroom can be found as well as information about the species and how to identify those that have been collected throughout the day.” The collection permit costs €5 per day and is available from the information office or on their website.4

The Basques go in family groups or groups of friends, knowing the edible types (or accompanied by at least one who knows) and they bring baskets, not plastic bags. The idea is that the spores of picked mushrooms will drop through the weave as they walk and so seed growths of new mushrooms further away from where the parent fungi were picked. It is actually illegal to go picking with plastic bags and though there are not many of them, the forest police will arrest people who break that law. In a nation overburdened with police forces, that force is the only one that seems free from popular resentment.

The best mushroom sites are kept secret by those who know and the location of those sites is sometimes handed down through generations. In a peninsula renowned for its types of food and preparation styles, Basque cuisine lays claim to the highest accolade. Yet it uses hardly any spices or herbs. Sea food is high on the cuisine list of course but so is the ongo, the mushroom.

On a Sunday in October 2010, I was present in Bilbao when Maribel and Josemari’s mycological group had an exhibition in a local square, where they also cooked and sold fungi. Josemari and Mirabel worked all day in the hot sun and then had their own feast with their group afterwards, though by then I imagine many would not have had a great appetite.

I was staggered by the number of different species of fungi native to Euskal Herria and their variety of shapes and colours — I was told by the couple, and can well believe it, that their association had exhibited just over 300 species in that exhibition, between edible, inedible and poisonous. This figure was down on the previous year, when they had exhibited 500! Apparently there are over 700 species known to the country.

I tried to imagine how many Irish people would attend such an exhibition in Dublin, even on a sunny day such as we had there — perhaps 20, if the organisers were lucky. The square in that Santutxu district of Bilbao was full, as were the surrounding bar/cafés. There were all ages present, from babies at their mothers’ breasts to elderly people making their way slowly through the crowds. The food was all centred around cooked edible fungi: shish kebabs of mushroom, peppers, onions; burgers made of minced mushrooms and a little flour; little mushrooms with ali-oli on top, served on small pieces cut off long bread rolls; big pieces of brown mushroom almost the size of the palm of one’s hand.

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August

Street in the Casco Viejo medieval part of Bilbao, showing decorations for the Bilbo festival in August (photo D.Breatnach)

The people queued for the food and those selling it couldn’t keep up with demand. And the people also, including children, queued to see the fungi being exhibited. Unlike the Irish, who doubtless also have varieties of edible native fungi in their land but have largely shown an interest in only the common white cultivated kind and, among certain groups of mostly young people, the ‘magic’ variety, the Basques love their fungi.

I ate some there in that square and again, with other food also, down in the Casco Viejo (the medieval part of Bilbo city), where some new friends took me de poteo (from bar to bar) and wouldn´t let me buy even one round. Many bars serve pintxos, small cold snacks, some plain enough and others more involved – normally one eats and drinks and pays the total before leaving. But some of those bars have a room upstairs or to the side where meals are served and one had an excellent restaurant where we ate well and, of course, my friends wouldn’t let me pay my share of that either. True, I had organised some solidarity work for one of their family in prison but all the same ….. When it comes to hospitality, in my opinion the Basques deserve the fame even better than the Irish, who have been justly known for that quality too.

Some of the company had been the previous day in the town of Hernani, where a rally convened to call for Basque Country independence had been banned by the Spanish state. Despite the judicial order, thousands of young people had participated in the rally and had been planning to attend the rock concert afterwards. The Basque Region Police had attacked the peaceful demonstration with plastic bullets and then baton-charged the young people. Many were injured by the plastic bullets, by batons, and by being trampled in the narrow streets when people tried to flee the charging police. It was an object lesson in the drawbacks to regional autonomy or “home rule”. However, the resistance had been so strong that the police eventually had to retreat and allow the rock concert to proceed without further interference. But that too is another story.

AGUR — SLÁN

But five years later, outside the church after Maribel’s funeral, I waited with my two brothers on the margins of the crowd. I saw some youth among the mourners, including Goth and punk types, presumably friends of Maribel and Josemari’s daughters. Most in attendance were of older generations, however. It was noticeable how prominent the women were – garrulous and assertive. There were of course representatives of various branches of the movement, who knew the couple personally.

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church (photo D. Breatnach)

Small section of the funeral crowd outside the church with Gorka in the foreground in white shirt (photo D. Breatnach)

Inside the church I had already conveyed my condolences to Josemari, who had seemed amazed, amidst his grief, that I had travelled from Ireland for the funeral. I was surprised, in turn, that he would have expected any less; for me, there was no question – I’d have borrowed the money to go if necessary. His son-in-law burst into tears when I hugged him and that was it for me, my composure crumbled and we cried in one another’s arms. Now I waited for the crowd to thin so I could hug the daughters, the two who live in Bilbao and Maider, who lives in Gastheiz (Vitoria).
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I stayed in a friend’s house a couple more days, renewing contacts and making a few new ones, meeting some old friends and then it was back to Dublin once more. Agur to Euskal Herria and agur to Maribel Eginoa – a loss to her family, to her nation, to me and to humanity.

End.

Footnotes

1  “ikastola” = school or college; plural “ikastolak”

2  Agur translates as “goodbye” but can also be a greeting. The Agur Jaunak’s lyrics are short and simple; the song is performed usually a capella, in giving honour to a person or persons and traditionally everyone stands when it is sung. The provenance of the air is a matter under discussion but it is only the Basques who are known to have lyrics to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xNMaMNMpYEk is one of the best versions I could find on the Internet although there is a somewhat cheesy bit by one of the performers in it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Z8E-xhYTU is vocally another lovely interpretation sung unusually high although I dislike the crescendo at the end which is not the traditional way of singing it, which is to end on a low note.

3  http://www.micologica-barakaldo.org/Micologica_Barakaldo/index.html