The latest declaration by ETA of a general and permanent ceasefire doesn't seem to have done much to change the outlook on achieving an end to political violence in the Basque Country. The problem with the statement is that it attempts to take us back to 2006, when the group also promised a "permanent" ceasefire, one that was broken when they didn't get what they wanted from the negotiating process with the Spanish government and which led to the 2007 bomb in Madrid airport that killed two people.
Maybe ETA, recently under intense police pressure, want to try and pick up the thread of negotiation where they left it before that bombing. The Spanish government doesn't and it's not hard to see why; the possibility of a repeat of what happened in 2007 is a political risk they will be unwilling to take. Add to that the view that with ETA being so weak they are not in a position to demand concessions in return for abandoning violence. Despite this, there is for the moment one significant difference with the previous process; the international dimension. This has meant that the ETA declaration included a willingness for their ceasefire to be verified by the international community.
Potentially this difference could be very important, with its echoes of the Northern Ireland process where international observers supervised the destruction of IRA weapons. ETA hasn't gone as far as saying that this is what they mean by verification, and the international mediators who have been contacted will be understandably cautious about getting involved without certain guarantees of the process leading somewhere. The word that is really missing from the ETA statement has been taken up by their political wing, Batasuna, in the last 24 hours. That word is "irreversible", but it's still not one that the men who hold the guns have uttered.
The illegal Batasuna is said to have been hoping for a clearer declaration that would pave the way for the legalisation of the party in time for it to contest the municipal elections in May. That looks an unlikely prospect given the very cool reaction by the Spanish government to the latest ceasefire. Batasuna will probably test the Ley de Partidos that was introduced to illegalise the party, by proposing a new organisation with a constitution that rejects the use of violence. According to the law that would be enough for the new party to contest elections, but in reality the decision is a political one and a bad law will continue to be used until either of the two major national parties decides it shouldn't be.
At least one of those parties, the Partido Popular, can be relied upon to oppose any movement that even suggests that Zapatero's government could preside over an end to ETA. That's what they did the last time, and a party whose atrocious and repugnant manipulation of terrorism as a political tool has been a consistent feature since March 11th 2004 is not going to change now. The first demonstration by the far right Libertad Digital/ Hazte Oir crew has already been called for the 5th February, and the insane myths about how Zapatero has pacted the handover of Navarra to ETA amongst other concessions have also been resurrected for the occasion. Expect far more shouting against the government than against ETA.
We can also expect the South African international mediator, Brian Currin, to become something of a hate figure for much of the right in Spain; even though his involvement is only going to have the intention of bringing about an end to violence. The same has already happened to the prominent Basque Socialist politican, Jesús Eguiguren, only for having the temerity to suggest that a ceasefire declaration would merit a response from the government. This is a man who has been an ETA target for years but such things matter little to the fanatics who have more or less branded him as being part of the group.
Whilst ETA and Batasuna are working hard on building up the international dimension of the process, the government is attempting to avoid this. But if it turns out that ETA really are willing to go the full distance then there will surely have to be some sort of positive response. The suggestion that the Spanish police will be the ones who verify the ceasefire is absurd, it goes along with those who say the only way out is for ETA to formally surrender. That's not the way these things happen, and it would be a serious matter if a chance for peace was turned down on the grounds that Spain rejects any international involvement.
It's very hard to have an accurate picture of what is going on inside ETA, but it's clear that there is intense debate in Batasuna and almost certainly inside ETA itself about the way forward. The rejection of the opportunity that existed in the last process has ended up with more of their prisoners drifting away from the cause, and with former supporters more or less openly questioning the point of ETA's existence in a way that didn't happen often before. It's still ETA's move, but that doesn't mean the other players shouldn't be preparing their response.