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Belfast Sinn Féin councillor launches Basque book

MATXINADA

Basque Nationalism & Radical Basque Youth Movements

Sinn Féin councillor for North Belfast, Eoin Ó Broin, made his publishing debut last week. After several years of research, Matxinada, Basque Nationalism and Radical Basque Youth Movements, was launched at the Cultúrlann, on Belfast's Falls Road. The 300-page book, published by Left Republican Books, is the first work to chart both the country's youth movements and the last 30 years of conflict. To a packed audience, Queens Sociology lecturer Bill Rolston introduced a short video demonstrating some of the activities detailed in the book. This was followed by a reading from the book by Ó Broin.

Speaking at the launch, the author said: "Despite being the site of the last remaining armed conflict in Europe, little is known about the Basque Country, its people and its struggle for independence. Moreover, the last 30 years have seen the emergence of a vibrant and radical youth culture at a time when young people across Europe are turning away from politics.' O'Broin's book sets out to provide the reader with an introduction to Basque nationalism and a chronology of the last 30 years of conflict between the Basques and the Spanish and French states. It also provides the first history of the various organisations and expressions which constitute the contemporary radical Basque youth movements

Following the Belfast launch last week, Matxinada will be launched in Dublin on Thursday 18 August at 7pm in Connolly Books. Launches will also take place in Derry, Galway, the Basque Country, and Scotland in the coming weeks.

Matxinada, Basque Nationalism and Radical Basque Youth Movements, can be bought at the Sinn Féin bookshops in Belfast and Dublin or at other good bookstores. The book costs £10 or ¤15.

Interview with Eoin Ó Broin

An Phoblacht: When and why did you decide to write a book about the Basque country and its youth movements.

Eoin Ó Broin: During 1997 and 1998 I was the National Organiser for Sinn Féin Youth. At that time we were developing a number of international relationships with youth groups in England, Wales, South Africa, Catalonia and the Basque Country. The strongest and most interesting youth movements were in the Basque Country and particularly an organisation called Jarrai (To Continue). It seemed to me that they understood that in order to mobilise large numbers of young people, you had to take a youth-centred approach. In fact, they were mobilising thousands and thousands of young people, through a very effective mix of radical politics and popular culture.

After several visits to the Basque Country I realised that in fact Jarrai was just part of a much broader and diverse youth culture, involving networks of illegal radio stations, youth houses, rock bands, campaign groups, language groups and students. So around 1999, I decided to write a short pamphlet about all of this, to make people in Ireland aware of the radical Basque youth movements. However, after a while I realised that a bigger book was needed, in order to provide the reader with a history of Basque nationalism and an account of the present conflict with the Spanish and French states.

AP: So Matxinada is about more than the youth movements?

EÓB: Yes, while the primary focus is on the youth movement, I thought that it was important to provide the reader with a political and historical context in which to understand developments in youth culture. I also felt that while there is a lot of solidarity with the Basque struggle among Irish republicans, a lot of it is not based in any detailed understanding of the situation. This is primarily because there is a lack of reliable information on what is happening there. So about half of the book is devoted to the general situation.

There is a short introduction discussing existing literature and journalism on the Basque Country. There is a history of Basque nationalism from the end of the 19th century through to the death of Franco. The longest of the general chapters is an account of the conflict from about 1976 through the Socialists' period in power and covering the government of Aznar right through to 2003.

AP: Is this the first book to deal with this subject and period?

EÓB: Yes, in fact it is. Nobody has written about the youth movements at all, not even in Basque or Spanish, which is rather strange. Given the drift by young people away from politics right across Europe, you would think that someone would be interested in the Basque situation as an anomaly. I also think that it is very strange that no standard account of the recent conflict exists in English. If you go into any bookstore you will see a lot of introductions to the Palestine/Israel conflict, or indeed to the situation in the North of Ireland, but nothing on the Basque Country. So Matxinada is the first book to write about the youth movements and the first English account of political developments from 1976 to 2003.

AP: How have you separated your own political views from those in the book?

EÓB: I haven't. I think it's very important that this book is written from a standpoint of solidarity with the Basque independence movement and the radical youth movement. I make this very clear from the very beginning of the book and make no apologies for that. Most books have biases or take political sides in one way or another. For me, the question is just to be honest about where you position yourself. Having said that, I have tried to make sure that a wide range of political actors are quoted from the left and right of the Basque spectrum to the left and right of the Spanish state. The analysis is one which most radical left nationalists would agree with, but that doesn't mean that I exclude voices from other political positions.

I have also tried to present information which you would never find anywhere else, especially about state violence and repression, or the question of political prisoners. So Matxinada is neither an objective nor an academic book, it is a book written by a political activist about other political activists.

AP: So what have been your sources of information?

EÓB: I have relied on three main sources of information. Firstly, a small but valuable amount of historical research by specialist historians of Basque affairs. Secondly, lot of primary source material such as newspapers, reports, magazines, etc. And thirdly, I carried out about 30 interviews with spokespersons for a wide number of organisations and campaigns in September and October 1999. These interviews form the basis of the two chapters on the youth movements.

AP: I understand that some of these activists have been arrested since 1999?

EÓB: Yes, that's correct. 15 of the 30 interviewees have been arrested since 1999. Of these, about ten are still in jail, awaiting trial, while the others have been released on bail and are also awaiting trial.

The charges against these young people are really incredible. They are political activists like myself, but they are being accused of a whole assortment of things, primarily around the question of 'supporting an armed organisation'. However, their real 'offence' is to be politically active in the radical youth movements.

The strength of these movements is scaring the Spanish government, to the extent that since 1999, they have enacted three sets of laws primarily aimed at intimidating young people away from radical political activism. Most have spent between one and two years in jail. In effect this is a form of internment without trial, although in a more select form.

Organisations such as Jarrai are being banned, their national executives jailed. A new organisation springs up in its place (such as Haika), which in turn is banned and their new national executive is arrested. This has happened three times, with Segi the most recent victim. Despite all of this repression, however, Segi continues to organise and mobilise; it's quite incredible actually.

AP: The book also deals with recent events?

EÓB: Yes, there is a chapter that goes from 1976 through to this year. It traces the political life of Spain after the death of Franco and the rise to power of the socialist administration of Filipe Gonzalez.

These were very bad years for the Basque Country, particularly because of the state-sponsored murder gang GAL. However, much of this chapter focuses on the consequences of the rise to power of the right after 1996. The present government of Jose Maria Aznar has unleashed a wave of repression since 1997, starting with the imprisonment of the national executive of Herri Batasuna and the closure of the daily newspaper Egin in 1997 and 1998.

More recently he has overseen the closure of the Basque language daily newspaper Egunkarria and the illegalisation of Batasuna. This year's local elections, held a few months ago, were the first to take place since the death of the dictator which saw a political party banned. There have also been a large number of political demonstrations banned, under the most spurious grounds. In fact, last weekend saw the first State of Exception declared (for 30 minutes) since the mid 1970s. A State of Exception means that it is illegal to congregate in groups of more than two people. And this measure was taken to prevent a peaceful demonstration against the illegalisation of Batasuna.

The more you think about it, the more incredible it is that at the start of the 21st century, in the European Union, a member state can erode the most basic civil liberties without a sound from the international community. The right to free speech is gone. The right to freedom of assembly is gone. The right to vote is effectively gone. It's frightening and has serious implications for us all. If one EU member state can do this, then so can the rest.

AP: How do you see the political situation in the Basque Country developing in the coming period?

EÓB: It's hard not to be pessimistic at the moment. This autumn will see the beginning of what is known as the Macro Sumario, which is the large legal case against a number of political organisations. That will be followed by a slightly smaller set of proceedings against the various youth organisations that have been banned. These trials will last for a while and could see a large number of political activists receive large jail sentences.

In addition, the newspaper Gara, which replaced Egin after it was closed, is beginning to attract the attention of the Spanish authorities and some of its staff fear the worst. With no political party, no newspaper, no youth organisations, what the Spanish government are doing is closing all of the political means of expression and organisation that the left nationalism movement has at its disposal. This can only lead to more confrontation with the state and greater levels of violence.

I really think that the next number of years will be very hard ones in the Basque Country. There will be a lot of arrests, more torture, more legal sanctions and in turn more violence. It is almost inevitable.

AP: So the Basques need support more than ever?

EÓB: There is no doubt about it. In some ways, it is a little like Ireland during the early 1980s. Aznar's government is like Thatcher's in that regard - solely focused on repression and more repression.

If the political situation is going to change at all, then there needs to be more international pressure exposing the reactionary ways in which Aznar and his allies in the Spanish judicial system are dragging the Basque Country and indeed Spain into deeper cycles of conflict. There needs to be a realisation that what is going on in the Basque Country has implications for us all. So the Basques need our solidarity more than ever.

There is a determined effort in the international community to isolate and criminalise Batasuna and the political expression of left nationalism. Sinn Féin can play an important role in making sure that that doesn't happen. Irish republicans must continue to hold to the belief that exclusion, criminalisation and censorship are not acceptable, and in its place we must promote dialogue and respect for civil and human rights for all people.

AP: Finally, what do you hope your book achieves?

EÓB: There are two things really. Firstly, I hope that it enables people to understand the situation in the Basque Country a little better. Like I have said, solidarity can sometimes be based on romantic ideas, not reality, but it is important that when we support a people in struggle it is on the basis of the facts. Secondly, I think that all struggles have somthing to learn from others. And we have a lot to learn from the Basques, particularly in terms of their radical youth culture. These objectives might be a little grand, but if even in a small way people learn a little, then the book will have been worthwhile.

AP: One final question, what does Matxinada mean?

EÓB: You will have to read the book to find out.

Book Reviews - TÁL 36

The Catholics of Ulster by Marianne Elliot (Penguin £25stg)

 

Wherever Green is Worn by Tim Pat Coogan (Hutchinson £25stg)

 

Amongst the reams of research that Marianne Elliot has accumulated on Ulster's Catholics now condensed into her latest book-The Catholics of Ulster, there are slim but priceless emotive pieces. A rough blend of arduous task and labour of love if ever there was for Marianne; as the writing of the book has involved the revisiting of her native Belfast and does not hide the pain of a childhood surrounded with prejudice. She is now the Professor of Modern History and director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University.

                    

Marianne's main thrust in the book is chiefly concerned with highlighting the distinctiveness and even the differences that she claims Ulster's Catholics have with other Catholics on the island of Ireland. Moreover, differences between Catholics living in the west or east of the six counties. This highlighting, she claims, is crucial to political progress.” I have always felt different from Catholics elsewhere in Ireland and this is a common feeling amongst Ulster Catholics. Yet I have found them consistently neglected in the histories of Ireland and of Irish Catholicism in particular, as if Irishness and Catholicism so dominated their sense of themselves that they could be safely included with all other Irish Catholics... if that had been so, we would not have been left with that overpowering sense of insecurity which is such a feature of the Ulster identity".

                  

 This communal scarring of the psyche has influenced Ulster's Catholics - Prof. Elliot reclaims the pre-partionist 9 County - Old Irish Kingdom name 'Ulster', recognising the political sensitivity of the terminology and usage associated with the 'name'. Whilst recognising that there are differences in all religions-based on social class, political persuasion etc Prof. Elliot claims that the differences highlighted in her book are more 'far reaching’, that they 'run deeper' and have been evident in the pre and post partition Ireland.

                     

I would have to disagree with her conclusion generally which states that northern Catholics are 'different' from most other Irish Catholics who see their Irishness or Irish extraction (i.e. those in the U.S.) as crucial to their sense of self. I felt that she should have spent less time on the obvious major differences-such as the relative tranquillity of life in the Free State as opposed to the periodic northern nightmare. The fact that a large number of Catholics vote Republican, and that the Republican vote is far higher in the north is also a proud statement of Irishness surely? More balance was required in my opinion, with regard to her criticism of the Catholic Church. i.e. some content regarding  the political influence carried by the various non-Catholic churches in the north, and how their actions have arguably had an influence  in the  way that Ulster's Catholics see themselves according to Prof. Elliot.

 

Having said that tho', it was a refreshing read -which, it has to be said, is unusual from an academic!

 

The Journalists and historians still continue to fire out their efforts too, none more it seems than perennial favourite/eternal pest (delete as appropriate) Tim Pat Coogan.

 

The Coogster's latest work WHEREVER GREEN IS WORN looks further afield and focuses entirely on the fate of migrants, including those who fled the various famines in the 1840s and before. Coogan highlights the importance of their descendants-some of whom are very influential Irish Americans who affect U.S. involvement in the Peace process. Coogan, unlike Elliot, does not however see northern Catholics as 'different'. The recurring theme in Coogan's biographies (one each on Michael Collins and De Valera, as well as a history of the I.R.A.)is that of the hard drinking, hard done-to Irish Catholic, and the patronising British colonial. 'Stereotypes', says Coogan, 'last if they are founded in truth'.

 

Both Elliot and Coogan are highly critical of the Catholic Church. Elliot; for its political dealings in the north; and Coogan for its failure to assist the migrants.

 

Both authors address the vitality of the rapid increase in the north’s Catholic population, but that is the point on which their differences clash.

 

Elliot's family still live in north Belfast and she recalls rioting in 1991 by loyalists following the publication of a report which (mistakenly at that time)showed that Catholics would soon outnumber Protestants.

 

She persistently preaches against triumphalism in her book. Coogan is also largely cautious in that regard. However, he finishes his work with an epilogue saying "ONE DAY THE SHEER ENERGY OF THE CELTS...WILL SUBSUME THE PRESENT UNIONIST MAJORITY”

 

Of the two works, I have to say that Coogan's was the one that appealed to me most. Author familiarity, perhaps had a lot to do with it-he is a very descriptive and engaging author who's research and fascinating nuggets make his books less tedious than the standard drudgery served up by most academics. That’s not to detract from Elliot’s work either though. The less serious or non -student readerships would find themselves just as comfortable with her book.

By MacIlhatton