Interview – Brian Currin

Brian Currin is a veteran of peace processes that bring civil conflicts to an end, having worked in South Africa, Northern Ireland and the Basque country. Needless to say, much of the work is highly politically sensitive, with entrenched hatreds aggravated by acts of violence and retaliation. It’s the sort of terrain where foundations generally fear to tread. The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT), however, has been a staunch supporter of Currin’s efforts.

He talks to Alliance about his involvement with the Basque peace process, about JRCT’s support, and about what its trust in him as an individual has enabled him to do.

When did you first get involved in the Basque peace process, and where are we now?

My first involvement in the Basque country was around the end of 2004. The pro-independence left party Batasuna was planning a new peace process for the Basque country, and they approached me because of my expertise in dealing with issues relating to paramilitary prisoners or political prisoners. Then the Socialists came into power in 2005 and this increased Batasuna’s belief that there could now be a peace process. So my involvement developed to advising them about involvement in the peace process, which included setting up training for their negotiators. When the so-called Anoeta peace process started, I was primarily advising Batasuna, but slowly beginning to meet unofficially some of the other parties in the Basque country.

The peace process didn’t last long for a number of reasons and a bomb at Madrid airport at the end of 2006 completed its collapse. Thinking about why it had collapsed, I came to the conclusion, based on my experience in South Africa and Northern Ireland, that there could not be a successful peace process in the Basque country as long as Batasuna, the political party that represented the aspirations of those who were claiming that their rights were being undermined and that they were not entitled to democratically and peacefully promote their right to self-determination, was banned and could not participate. You couldn’t have a transparent peace process. Without the legalization of the ANC in South Africa, and without Sinn Fein being legalized in Northern Ireland, there would never ever have been successful peace processes in those countries. So in my view, Batasuna had to be legalized and for that to happen, Spanish party political law required that they reject violence and any organization that promotes it. They would therefore have to reject ETA, if ETA were to commit acts of violence, which would have been extremely difficult.

In time, through constant discussion and engagement with Batasuna and their leadership, they themselves came to the same conclusion. It took about three years, but in 2010 they made a statement saying that they were committed to exclusively peaceful means and that they would not support violence or the effects of violence in whatever circumstances. I had promised that if they made that kind of commitment I would get international support – which at that point didn’t exist because the international community, particularly in Europe, had been persuaded that the conflict in the Basque country was not a political one but a terrorist threat. So when I tried to make good on my promise of international support, I was told that Batasuna had to go further, not only condemning violence but condemning and rejecting ETA if ETA were to commit acts of violence.

In my view that shifted the goal posts. What I then did was arrange for five Nobel peace laureates, peace activist organizations, the Nelson Mandela Foundation and individuals to sign what became known as the Brussels Declaration. This called on ETA to declare a permanent, unilateral ceasefire, verifiable by the international community, and for a corresponding commitment from Madrid to respond appropriately. If ETA did this, I undertook to establish an international contact group within the Basque country to, among other things, promote negotiations among all political parties there. There was a legitimate concern that with an effective ceasefire, the Madrid government might simply have taken the position that the problem was at an end and brushed aside the political question of the Basque country.

This was the turning point. It took ETA about nine months to respond, then they declared a unilateral, permanent ceasefire and agreed to its verification by the international community. That was in January 2011 and they ended armed activity in October 2011.

What happened between the Brussels Declaration and the peace conference?

Between the Brussels Declaration in March 2010 and January 2011, I consulted with as many political parties and social groups in the Basque country as possible to ask them whether they felt an international contact group would be helpful if ETA were to declare a verifiable ceasefire. The role of the group would be to establish multi-party talks and provide expertise, mediation, facilitation and assistance around issues that would arise around prisoners, victims and so on. They all said it would. After those discussions, I prepared a mandate for the group and I set about creating it immediately after ETA’s statement in January 2011. Importantly, ETA had also agreed to international verification of the ceasefire, which meant that an international verification body would also have to be established. As this was a key confidence-building measure, the international contact group moved quickly and in the first quarter of 2011 an international verification commission was established. As it was a non-governmental body, we took the necessary steps to ensure that its work would not be undermined. I cannot elaborate on that.

I was confident that it was worth getting ahead with this because, although there was absolutely no love lost or trust between ETA and Madrid, the Brussels Declaration meant that ETA had a commitment not to Madrid but to a group of Nobel Peace Laureates and others, and how could ETA breach their commitment to those people? They represented the international community, and the Brussels Declaration became a much bigger thing than I ever envisaged.

What Batasuna also did, very wisely, before they made their commitments about non-violence, was to consult with their constituency on the ground for a period of two years, and they made sure that the vast majority of supporters of Batasuna and ETA agreed to non-violence. That meant they could and did say to ETA, ‘if you commit violence during this period, you’re doing something contrary to the wishes of your own constituency.’

A third part of the strategy was the formation of a pro-independence mass democratic movement in the Basque country, involving social groups as well as political parties. This involved giving commitments to all these groups which were opposed to violence that if ETA did commit an act of violence, they would come out against it. In a sense ETA’s movement from declaring a ceasefire and consolidating the ceasefire towards declaring the end of their war became inevitable, so I was confident that they would eventually make the statement that they made in October last year at the San Sebastian peace conference. On our side, we had to deliver the international support we promised, which we did. Kofi Annan, UN former Secretary General; Bertie Ahern, former Irish Prime Minister; Gro Harlem Bruntland,  former Prime Minister of Norway; Pierre Joxe. former Minister of Interior and Defence of France; Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein; and Jonathan Powell, first Downing Street Chief of Staff under British Prime Minister Tony Blair – all attended the conference. These are all high fliers so it gave ETA the confidence to go ahead. There was also an understanding before the conference that if ETA did what they were called upon to do, France and Madrid would respond positively and enter into discussions with ETA about the consequences of the violence. Work had been done behind the scenes, so it’s a surprise that that hasn’t happened.

The problem is there’s been a change of government and the Spanish Popular Party is taking the line that ETA needs to dissolve completely and be decommissioned, and only when that happens will they look at prisoner and related issues. The international contact group is arguing that there can’t be decommissioning and a final dissolution of ETA without engagement with the governments of both Spain and France.

Is Batasuna now unbanned?

Batasuna formed a party called Sortu, which not only rejected violence but disassociated itself from and rejected any organization that had previously been associated with an organization that committed violence; in other words they disassociated themselves from Batasuna. Sortu launched itself as a political party and Madrid immediately said it should be banned because its members were the same people that made up Batasuna, and through that they are associated with ETA. So at present, Sortu is banned, but it has appealed to the Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, one of the other nationalist parties, which wasn’t banned, formed a new party called Bildu, which agreed with Batasuna that it would put the names of people from Batasuna on its lists for the election. Madrid objected, but the Supreme Court decided in favour of Bildu. Bildu got 25 per cent of the vote in the Basque country, which was significantly more than even they anticipated.. So although Sortu is banned pending a decision by the Constitutional Court, its members are participating through Bildu. One of the mandates of the international contact group is to work towards the legalization of Sortu, which initiative is supported by the vast majority of the people in the Basque country who favour an all-inclusive democracy.

Were you working on this on your own until the Brussels Declaration?

Yes except for the year after the collapse of the Anoeta peace process which was in March 2007. I formed the International Group for Peace and Dialogue in the Basque Country to keep dialogue going between the parties – in other words to ensure that the channels that were opened during the Anoeta peace process were not closed. This operated for probably 12 to 16 months, until I came to the conclusion that the focus really needed to shift to Batasuna and ETA, so we stopped the work of the group and I worked on my own, with logistical support from a local NGO, Lokarri, until we established the international contact group in January 2011.

How did you first come across Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (JRCT)? And at what point did you get support from?

JRCT were aware of my human rights work in South Africa, but the first direct engagement with them came through the mediation I did in Drumcree in 2000-02, which was funded by JRCT and Atlantic Philanthropies. My work with the police and paramilitary organizations to try to get community policing going in Northern Ireland was funded through InterAction Belfast.

I got support for my work in the Basque country from early 2006 during the Anoeta peace process through until 2011 – and in this case they funded me direct, as an individual. The last money we had from JRCT was spent on some of the work of preparing for the international conference before we got the commitment from the funders to that conference.

What were the conditions?

Every single grant was based on a proposal with set objectives, mostly for about a year – for instance, that in a year’s time I would have a statement from Batasuna that they were willing to renounce violence – and I can say that, with only one exception, the objectives were met. At that point, we would set new objectives. So you could see progress being made incrementally. The one thing that was delayed was support from the international community, but JRCT understood the dynamics and were willing to go on for another year, which basically took us to the Brussels Declaration and then to the conference.

Would you have been able to do this work without support from them?

It would have been absolutely impossible.

And there weren’t other foundations that were willing to provide support?

For as long as I had the JRCT support, I never gave up trying to get other funders because I felt guilty about always receiving money from them. Also I didn’t want to put Stephen [Pittam] in a difficult position. There were occasions when I’d be reluctant to put in another application, and he’d say ‘put it in and I’ll go and fight the battle for you’ but I’d make it clear that I was trying somewhere else at the same time.

By the sound of it you were meeting annual objectives, in fact they were getting pretty good value for their funding. In that sense it was not so risky …

But it was politically risky. And if nobody will go in with you, it is never comfortable. Stephen received the sort of ‘hate’ mail that I received from people who objected to work being done with ‘terrorists’. We both received similar treatment from the right-wing media in Spain.

The other big risk, as some of the JRCT trustees pointed out, was that they couldn’t trust ETA and at some stage they would let us down. That was my job – to make sure this didn’t happen.

For more information

In an article in the forthcoming June issue of Alliance, Stephen Pittam reflects on the risks and rewards of this sort of funding.

If you are interested in reading the accompanying article but do not yet have a current subscription, discover more >

Comments (2)

Sam van den Berg

Hi Brian Me again. Sorry about the typos. But you are free to use my email adress

Sam van den Berg

Hi Brian You won't remember me, I'm one of the little people. But perhaps you will remember the total hash you made when "mediating" between me and the management of the University of South Africa. in 1997. My family and I are still suffering because of your eagerness to earn a week's money in one day. No wonder the Basques told you to take a hike. Sam van den Berg former founding head of the defunct University of South Africa academic quality assurance unit. PS: thanks to you, the Apartheid Regime won the day at the University. Whish is probably why it no longer ranks anywhere on the various university rankings. No wonder that you have taken refuge in the odd corners of Europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Interview to read

Interview – Jamie Cooper-Hohn

Alliance magazine