IN PHILOSOPHY there is a paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. If, over time, all the ship’s planks are replaced, does it remain the same ship? The judges on Spain’s Supreme Court will soon face a mirror image of this question. Sortu, a new political group that seeks independence for the Basque country, is the brainchild of senior figures from Batasuna, a party banned in 2003 for its links to the terrorists of ETA. Sortu says it is not the same as Batasuna, and should be allowed to register as a party (see article). On this, if little else, it is right.
Many Spanish people disagree. Sortu, says one opposition politician, is still the “claw” of ETA, only with “painted nails”. Such scepticism is understandable. The creators of Sortu belonged to a party that took orders from gunmen and bombers responsible for hundreds of deaths. Batasuna probably channelled the public funds it received into ETA’s pockets. Many thought the distinction between Batasuna and ETA illusory.
Unlike Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland, Batasuna did not appear to provide a useful “bridge” between violent separatism and constitutional politics. Rather than aggravate Basque-nationalist grievances, as some, including this newspaper, feared, the ban on the party seemed to help marginalise the militants. In June 2009 the Spanish court’s decision was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights.
So what has changed? ETA is still not to be trusted; a “permanent” ceasefire in 2006 lasted just nine months. But the group is far weaker today. A string of successful police operations has sapped its manpower and morale. Since 2000 it has killed 58 people; three decades ago it often took more lives than that in a year. Unlike the 2006 truce, which was a tactical move ETA made when it thought it was still strong, its latest ceasefire, declared in September and made “permanent” in January, was partly the result of pressure by former Batasuna leaders, including some of those standing behind Sortu, who have lost faith in the armed struggle.
More importantly, Sortu says it rejects ETA’s violence. Seeking to satisfy the judges, the party has even written its denunciations into its statutes. This is a significant shift. Batasuna never condemned ETA’s terrorism, and often glorified the gunmen. The new party has left itself little room to operate in the same way. Its stance could act as a brake on violence; ETA may not want to drive a public wedge between itself and the politicians by forcing Sortu to condemn it. It is the party’s decisive rejection of violence, above all, that means Spain’s judges ought to turn down prosecutors’ calls to ban it.
Granting a party the right to take part in elections does not bestow on it the seal of legitimacy. The desperadoes of Sortu have done little to earn this. The whole history of their movement is one of intransigence and truculence. Their ideological allies in ETA have repeatedly shown themselves to be untrustworthy negotiating partners. Even now they show no sign of making moves to decommission their arms stocks.
But bringing the political representatives of Basque militancy into the democratic light would be the best way to show up these flaws. Indeed, perhaps the best outcome would be for those who favour Basque independence to vote for Aralar, a separatist party that split from Batasuna in 2000 over its continued backing of terrorism. That would be the ultimate rejection of ETA. And it has to happen at the ballot box.