In preceding years, the patriotic left-wing had followed with great interest the dialogue and negotiation processes in El Salvador and South Africa, but the Irish peace process had a particularly profound impact on Euskal Herria (Basque Country). The patriotic left-wing held historical bonds with the republican movement and the two forces shared closely related views. Based on this, Herri Batasuna suggested to the various nationalist and democratic forces the setting-up of a debate forum to analyse the Irish process, called the “Forum of Ireland”, to see what lessons could be useful for the Basque process.

This scenario was created amidst a severe offensive by the state and an increase of armed activities by ETA which reached sectors that had not been previously targeted. Political representatives supporting repressive policies such as the dispersion of political prisoners or attacks against Herri Batasuna became legitimate targets in the view of ETA.52

The handing over to the Spanish state and subsequent imprisonment of the ETA negotiation team deported to Santo Domingo in September 1997 also showed the breaking-off of every negotiation option by the government of José María Aznar. This way, the contact route that had been held, with ups and downs, between ETA and the government since Algiers was closed off.

In May 1998 the state extended its repression against social, political and media organisations, accusing them of being part of the ETA framework with the clear objective of hindering the leadership and the driving force of the process that was being carried out.53

The abertzale left understood that in view of these attacks against social and political organisations, it had to respond with more political proposals. The dynamics of collaboration between various nationalist and progressive forces started to be publicly seen within the field of defence of the rights of the political prisoners, and against the dispersion policy. This caused ETA to put an end to its so-called prison front, by which they acted against members of penitentiary institutions. On January 31, ETA issued a communiqué in which it pointed out that:

ETA will support the meeting points that may be established in order to boost the national construction… ETA will never be ashamed of the initiatives it carries out in order to achieve peace and will not use those procedures to achieve a political return on them. If we achieved the guarantee that the word of the whole Euskal Herria be respected with no violence by the occupation forces, which are foreign in our land, the conflict with the Spanish state would have other connotations. Then the weapons would silence once and for all.

During the summer of 1998, 18 political and social groups took part in the Forum of Ireland, among them the EAJ-PNV, EA, Herri Batasuna, ELA and LAB. At the same time, ETA, the EAJPNV and EA agreed in secret talks “to take effective steps to create a sole and sovereign institution that gather Araba, Biscay, Gipuzkoa, Labourd, Navarre and Zuberoa together”. In this context, the PNV-PSE government agreement was broken and the Ajuria Enea pact came to an end. EAJ-PNV and EA also affirmed, on the basis of their agreement with ETA, their withdrawal from “all the agreements with the forces whose objective is the destruction of Euskal Herria and the construction of Spain”.

On September 12, the forces that had taken part in the Forum of Ireland announced the Lizarra-Garazi Agreement.54 Based on the Irish experience, it analysed the factors that had led to the Good Friday Agreement and how this model could be applied to the Basque situation. It proposed an initial phase “where dialogue and negotiation could be facilitated through multi-party talks without pre-conditions” and a “resolution phase” in which “negotiation towards the resolution of the conflict should take place during a permanent cessation of all expressions of violence.”

Four days later, ETA declared a unilateral and indefinite truce, which for the first time was not granted as a result of a relationship with the state and was not conditional on it. On October 24, they asserted in an interview with the BBC that their ceasefire decision was a “firm and serious decision and with a manifest will to settle the conflict”. On the contrary, for the government, this truce was a “trap truce” (Giacopucci, 2002).

The truce and the Lizarra-Garazi Agreement had clear effects on the Basque Autonomous Parliament elections of October 25, 1998, where the forces that supported the Lizarra-Garazi Agreement obtained 61% of the votes.55 The new autonomous government was formed from an EAJ-PNV-EA minority, with the external support of the coalition Euskal Herritarrok representing the abertzale left. On February 6, 1999, more than 600 Basque elected candidates met in Iruñea to discuss the future setting-up of an Assembly of Basque Municipalities of the six Basque provinces, called Udalbiltza. The founding document pointed out that the objectives would be the following:
• To declare the existence of Euskal Herria as a nation.
• To contribute to the political structuring of Euskal Herria, bearing witness to its territoriality and hoping to embrace the representatives of the six Basque territories in a common framework.
• To boost the national construction of Euskal Herria, understood as a dynamic and democratic process based on the free participation and decision of every Basque citizen.

The Spanish government, taken aback at first, decided to opt for showing some demonstration of its goodwill by announcing its intention to meet “the environment of the National Liberation Basque Movement”. However, only one such meeting took place,56 even though some contact channels were later kept open.

In local elections in June 1999, the EAJ-PNV-EA coalition lost some votes while Herri Batasuna increased its support to 276,000 votes. This result alarmed EAJ-PNV leaders, who began to think that the process of collaboration benefited mainly the abertzale left. Intra-party dissensions intensified, between supporters and opponents of the collaboration with the abertzale left. Consequently, the EAJ-PNV refused to break off completely its agreements with state forces, and to conclude some agreements with Euskal Herritarrok at the local and provincial level. As a result of this impasse between the three Basque forces (ETA, EAJ-PNV, EA) with regard to the creation of a common institutional structure, ETA announced in the summer of 1999 that it had suspended its ceasefire, and submitted a negotiation proposal with regards to the formation of a Basque national sovereign institution. According to ETA, no answer or counterproposal was offered by either the EAJ-PNV or EA.

Talk attempts

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52 An extreme illustration of such tactics came with the kidnapping and later assassination of the PP councillor Miguel Angel Blanco. Such proceedings had a profound impact within the Basque society in general, including the social bases of the abertzale left, and they led to intensified attacks against the abertzale left as well as pro-Spanish nationalist demonstrations directed against Basque nationalism in general.
53 On May 28, ten people were arrested and some legal companies were closed, a process that would be extended in July with the arrest of the editorial board and the closure of the Egin newspaper and radio. The reports that the official headquarters of Herri Batasuna were being spied on systematically by the secret services with no judicial authorisation added to this total-war policy against the patriotic left.
54 Initially just named the Lizarra Agreement, it later became known as Lizarra-Garazi, given that this second locality –Garazi– extended the pact to nationalist and progressive forces of the Basque provinces under French jurisdiction.
55 Herri Batasuna, which ran under an electoral platform called Euskal Herritarrok, obtained 223,000 votes and 14 seats, among which were elected the political prisoners Josu Urrutikoetxea and Joxean Etxeberria.
56 A meeting between government representatives and Herri Batasuna was held in Burgos, where the latter made it clear that it is not an interlocutor of ETA, and that if the government wishes to talk to ETA, the government should address it directly.