Recently I attended the launch in Madrid of a book by the Spanish expert on Basque and Irish terrorism, Professor Rogelio Alonso.
He has taught at the University of Ulster and written one of the few serious books on the IRA.
His latest book is titled The Defeat of the Victors : The Anti-Terrorist Policy and the End of ETA.
Published by one of the main Spanish publishing houses, it can only be hoped that there will soon be an English translation because the author’s critique of the policies of successive Socialist and Popular Party governments has many echoes of what has been visited upon the victims of terrorism in Northern Ireland.
A key argument is against the sentimentalisation of victims – the public face of concern, of putting victims at the centre of public concern which acts as a cover for what one unpublished government document referred to as ‘un final sucio’ ( a dirty ending) of the state’s policies towards ETA which allowed an organisation which had been effectively destroyed as a paramilitary force, to win a series of political and ideological victories through its political wing.
Incidentally the ideological and political strengthening of the so-called ‘ abertzale left’ the various parties and groups which formed part of the political and ideological superstructure of ETA ,was helped by various Irish and British politicians, former officials, clerics and transitional justice academics who despite their often blithe ignorance of Spanish and Basque history came to berate Madrid politicians for their inflexibility and refusal to learn the lessons of the Irish peace process.
For Alonso the main Basque Nationalist party, the PNV, has, while criticising the violence of ETA, accepted a broader nationalist argument that the fundamental cause of the violence is not ETA but centuries of oppression of the Basque country be the Spanish state.
Despite the transition to democracy at the end of the 1970s and the fact that the Basque Country is one of the wealthiest regions of Spain and has more powers of self-government than any other Spanish region- greater than the Northern Irish and Scottish devolved governments — the PNV has shared an ideology of victimisation which did much to justify the terrorist campaign.
The Northern Irish echoes of all this are obvious. However, I think that Professor Alonso, who lived in Belfast for a decade during the early stages of the peace process, is well aware how much further down the road of the entrenchment of an exculpatory narrative on the past and the white-washing of terrorist narratives Northern Ireland has reached.
In part this is because the Spanish state is determined to hold on to the Basque Country and Catalonia while its British counterpart has made it clear from the 1970s that it will not stand in the way of Northern Ireland leaving the UK.
All the main Spanish parties, including the left formation, Podemos, support the 1978 Spanish constitution and oppose secessionist demands.
It is also the case that unionism and in particular the DUP has proved incapable of countering nationalist and transitional justice narratives which have succeeded in imposing a framework for dealing with the past which treats the British state as on a par with Latin American and other authoritarian and genocidal regimes — in a recent academic conference on these themes at Queens University there were papers on South Africa, Colombia and Cambodia — and predictably none on main agency of death in the Troubles, the Provisionals.
Brexit and the impulsion this has given to a surge of Irish nationalist sentiment has seen much debate for or against a border poll. But unionism would be in a much stronger position than it is if all it had to worry about was a vote on leaving or remaining within the UK.
For as Professor Alonso’s book shows, a region can remain constitutionally part of a state while its politics, public institutions and civil society are dominated by a world view that is profoundly antagonistic to that state.
• Henry Patterson is Emeritus Professor of Irish Politics at UU