Prisoners and peace-making in the Basque Country

The children of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi in Belfast

The children of jailed Basque pro-independence leader Arnaldo Otegi in Belfast

In the Basque city of Bilbao tonight, up to 100,000 people will march in a silent demonstration for the repatriation of hundreds of Basque political prisoners. Under the Spanish government’s policy of ‘dispersion’, 463 Basque prisoners are being held in more than 70 jails across the Spanish and French states at distances of up to 1,200km from home.

The policy has violated the human rights of thousands of Basque prisoners since its introduction in 1989 but is viewed by the overwhelming majority of Basque society as especially repugnant today, following the announcement by ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) of a permanent ceasefire in 2011 and its subsequent disarmament moves last year.

Those who will march this evening are not demanding amnesty or special treatment for the prisoners – they are calling for an end to the exceptional measures used by the Spanish government to isolate and demoralise Basque political prisoners, and to punish their families and broader Basque society.

The demonstration has been called by ‘Sare’ (Network), a broad-based civil society organisation launched last year with the goals of building a mass campaign for the resolution of the status of Basque prisoners and exiles.

Jailed for opinions and activism

The prisoners have all been labelled as terrorists by the Spanish government and judiciary. Some of the prisoners have been convicted of membership of ETA or ETA activities. Many others have been convicted of membership of political parties or organisations that have never been associated with the use of violence. Some have been convicted of terrorism for minor acts of sabotage during street protests, and still others have been jailed for expressing political opinions. Journalists, students, youth activists and lawyers are among the prisoners.

Since 1998, the Spanish judiciary has implemented a criminalisation strategy that claimed ‘everything that surrounds ETA is ETA’. Any political party, newspaper or cultural organisation that supported Basque independence was deemed to be part of ETA.

As well as the Law of Political Parties, which criminalised membership in Batasuna and other non-violent political organisations in 2002, the law against “glorifying terrorism” has been used to jail journalists, editors, and elected political representatives. Over the past year this law has led to terrorism charges against dozens of youths for their social media posts, including, for example, a post of a map of the Basque Country with the word ‘Independence’ on it.

Exceptional measures

In February last year a 36-year-old man, Arkaitz Bellón, died in a jail in Andalusia.  His experience of the Spanish justice system was unfortunately typical of Basque prisoners and involved harsh sentencing, beatings in jail, repeated transfers and dispersion.

Arkaitz died more than 1,200km from his home. He had been jailed for “terrorism” for 13 years for his involvement in street disturbances and was just a few months away from completing his sentence. He had reported being beaten by guards in the prisons he was previously held in, in Sevilla in 2013, Puerto III in 2010 and Algeciras in 2008.

Arkaitz Bellón

Arkaitz Bellón

His death was caused by a pulmonary edema, and he was the third Basque prisoner to die of illness in jail in the space of one year. If Arkaitz had been an ordinary prisoner he would have qualified for early release under Spanish law as he had served more than three-quarters of his sentence. But refusing to apply this law is another one of the exceptional measures used by the Spanish government against Basque prisoners.

Refusing to release seriously ill prisoners on parole is yet another exceptional measure used against Basque prisoners. According to Etxerat (Home), the prisoners’ relatives association, there are currently nine prisoners in jail who are suffering from serious and incurable illnesses, including multiple sclerosis, AIDS, and cancer. Ordinary prisoners receive this right under Spanish law, and it is enshrined in two binding United Nations human rights conventions, which Spain is a signatory to. Repeated transfers, mistreatment, beatings and solitary isolation are also commonly used against Basque prisoners.

The policy of dispersion was introduced by the Spanish government as a hardline punitive measure following the failure of the first negotiations between ETA and the Spanish government held in Algeria in 1989.

International human rights organisations and the UN have long been calling on the Spanish government to end the policy. It contradicts a UN resolution (‘Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment’) adopted in 1988 that states: “If a detained or imprisoned person so requests, he shall if possible be kept in a place of detention or imprisonment reasonably near his usual place of residence.” The principle is aimed at defending the right of prisoners to maintain their family connections, and their connections with trusted legal representatives and physicians.

Dispersion not only infringes the right of prisoners to maintain their family ties; it punishes the families themselves, who are forced to make round trips of, on average, 1,400km every weekend to visit their relatives at an average expense of €20,000 per year. Etxerat has recorded the number of traffic accidents relatives have suffered in these trips – more than 400 since the introduction of the policy. Sixteen relatives of prisoners have been killed in such accidents.

Extending prisoners’ sentences

A punitive measure against Basque prisoners known as the Parot Doctrine was introduced in 2006, but has now been struck down by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The doctrine, which was applied retroactively, meant remission for Basque political prisoners jailed before the introduction of the current penal code in 1995 could be granted on prisoners’ original full sentences instead of the 30-year maximum term. This effectively imposed life sentences. Parot was applied to 93 prisoners, including 71 who were still in jail when the ECHR ruled it was a human rights violation on 21 October 2013. Spain was forced to release them.

However, the Spanish government is now pursuing another legally dubious path in an attempt to extend the sentences of Basque prisoners. A European Union Council Framework Decision adopted in November 2008 (2008/909/JHA), regarding the principle of “mutual recognition” of judgments and sentences among EU member states, means that Basque prisoners who have served time in French prisons should have these years counted as part of their total time served when they are transferred to the Spanish state.

The Council Framework Decision had not been codified in legislation by the Spanish parliament, but Spanish courts applied it and discounted years spent in French jails for transferred Basque prisoners. The conservative People’s Party (PP) government has now legislated for its own interpretation of the Council Framework Decision, stating that it is not to be applied to prisoners sentenced after August 2010. This arbitrary date has nothing to do with the framework decision, which did not include any such limitation.

Guardia Civil arrests a Basque woman in 2009, accused of membership of non-violent youth organisation Segi

This has caused confusion as to whether the EU decision or the Spanish interpretation should be followed, and prisoners have appealed its application. But appeals heard in the Supreme Court resulted in opposing decisions. The Grand Chamber of the Supreme Court was then convened on 16 December 2014 to hear an appeal.

On 19 December 2014, 13 of the 18 Supreme Court magistrates publicly criticised what they said was an attempt by the Executive to interfere with the judiciary. Officials from the prosecutor’s office were pressuring the Court to disregard the EU decision. The Supreme Court decision has now been postponed until 13 January. If the government pressure succeeds, 50 Basque prisoners could have their sentences illegally extended.

Prisoners’ relatives association Etxerat said in December 2014 that it fears a massive transfer of prisoners from the French to the Spanish state is being planned under the Framework Decision, and that Spain will use the transfer to move these prisoners even further from home, including to prisons as far away as Africa.

Spain changes the rules

The Spanish government is in the contradictory position of trying to deny the political dimension of the conflict by insisting the Basque prisoners are common criminals and not political prisoners, while at the same time singling these prisoners out for special punitive treatment.

For 26 years, successive Spanish governments have insisted that in order for a prisoner to achieve an end to the use of punitive exceptional measures, he or she must individually renounce the use of violence and acknowledge the suffering caused by ETA. The Basque Political Prisoners Collective (EPPK) has historically resisted meeting these conditions.

On 28 December 2013, the EPPK released a statement in which it confirmed its support for the ETA ceasefire and the development of a peace process. It recognised the suffering caused by the conflict, and committed for the first time to aiming for the repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with the Spanish legal framework. In essence, it meant Basque prisoners collectively accepted the legitimacy of the Spanish justice system for the first time.

Characteristically, Spain responded less than two weeks later by arresting and jailing eight EPPK mediators, including two lawyers, on 8 January 2014. They claimed the EPPK, and therefore its mediators, was an “operational arm of ETA”.

In March 2014, in accordance with the EPPK announcement, a number of prisoners began individually engaging with the legal system to fulfil requirements and request transfer to Zaballa jail in the Basque province of Alava. Prisoners with serious and chronic illnesses, and those over 70, filed requests asking for parole or house arrest.

By July 2014, every single one of more than 65 requests for transfer or parole had been rejected. The rejections claimed the fact the prisoners had met all of the previously stipulated conditions wasn’t good enough, as the members of the collective had not “broken with the discipline of ETA”.

The discipline of ETA – or rather, of the EPPK, which includes all Basque political prisoners – resulted in a collective renouncement of the use of violence, acknowledgment of the suffering caused, and recognition of the Spanish justice system’s authority. The collective made a difficult political decision and a historic compromise in order to achieve repatriation as a crucial peace-building measure.

Solidarity itself criminalised

The abuse of prisoners’ rights, and the widely documented use of torture by the Guardia Civil during the standard five-day incommunicado detention of political suspects, have long been among the most emotive issues in Basque society. The torture and mistreatment of political prisoners during the four-decade dictatorship of General Franco created a profound abhorrence among Basques for such abuses that continues to be deeply felt today, across the political spectrum.

Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop) march for repatriation

Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop) march for repatriation

Months after ETA announced a permanent ceasefire in 2011, a massive demonstration for the repatriation of Basque prisoners was held in Bilbao in January 2012. One hundred thousand people marched. As a result of the groundswell of support for the campaign, a broad alliance of Basque civil society formed and legally registered ‘Herrira’ (Return Home) the following month, a committee that would campaign for the end to the dispersion policy.

Herrira organised a march for repatriation in Donostia/San Sebastian in January 2013 that swelled to 115,000 people. In September 2013, the Spanish government launched a series of raids against Herrira, shutting down the organisation and charging 18 of its activists with terrorism offences.

Never deterred, supporters of the campaign for repatriation quickly formed a new organisation, Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), and called for the annual demonstration for an end to dispersion to be held in Bilbao in January 2014.

But Judge Eloy Velasco from the Audiencia Nacional banned the march on the grounds that Tantaz Tanta had “links” to Herrira. Tantaz Tanta cancelled the march but the ban provoked outrage and forged unity among all sections of Basque nationalist opinion.

Basque abertzale left party Sortu and its affiliated trade union confederation LAB immediately worked together with the conservative PNV (Basque Nationalist Party) and its affiliated union the ELA to call for a new march on 11 January 2014 – which drew 130,000 people out on to the streets of Bilbao.

It was the largest protest in the history of the Basque Country, and it called for ‘Human Rights, Resolution, Peace’. It was the first time since 1998 that the PNV and abertzale left held such a joint demonstration.

Yet another new organisation, Sare, was launched in September 2014 after Velasco’s attempt to criminalise Tantaz Tanta. In a stadium filled with 10,000 people, and addressed by Basque political figures, celebrities and cultural figures, Sare pledged to work for the repatriation of prisoners; for the release of seriously ill prisoners; and for the release of all those who have been jailed for purely political work. It has already distributed half a million copies of its ‘Book of Dispersion’ around the world.

Madrid’s intransigence is becoming increasingly difficult to justify as international pressure builds for the Spanish and French governments to grasp this historic opportunity for a comprehensive resolution to the long Basque conflict. And Basque society is becoming increasingly unified and mobilised in its demand for human rights and a peaceful resolution.

Sare representatives said in December that tonight’s silent demonstration will ensure that “the shout of thousands of silent voices of citizens reaches the last corner – so that the world perceives that putting an end to dispersion is necessary and urgent.”

TURC: Political theatre that’s fallen flat

The timing of the release of the interim findings of the Abbott Government’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption demonstrated that even the Government now realises the Commission has failed to land a significant blow against the Australian trade union movement. Commissioner John Dyson Heydon’s interim report was released to little media fanfare on December 19, the Friday before Christmas.

The Commission’s interim report is a product of the highly political terms of reference written by the Abbott government, and of the biased approach of Commissioner Heydon and Counsel Assisting Jeremy Stoljar. Yet it still fails to paint a picture of anything nearing widespread corruption in the trade union movement.

The two relevant stories dominating the media prior to the announcement of the Royal Commission were allegations about former prime minister Julia Gillard’s role in the establishment of an Australian Workers Union slush fund more than two decades ago, and the corruption in the Health Services Union East Branch revealed by “whistleblower” Kathy Jackson, national secretary.

The sustained campaign led by Liberal politicians and the Murdoch press to implicate Gillard in wrongdoing as a solicitor in 1992 fizzled out and Counsel Assisting’s final submissions to the Commission published on October 31 stated that she “did not commit any crime and was not aware of any criminality” on the part of her former boyfriend, Bruce Wilson, and his then AWU colleague Ralph Blewitt.

In contrast, court actions during 2014 have revealed that Jackson – described as a “hero” by Abbott in 2012 and initially viewed by the Commission as its star witness – is the subject of litigation brought by the HSU, which is seeking to recover $1.4 million she allegedly stole from the union between 2004 and 2010. The Commissioner quietly averted his gaze in his interim report, and Jackson is mentioned on just six of its more than 1,800 pages.

Body count unimpressive

This approach of a Royal Commission avoiding making findings on issues that are the subject of ongoing court action is sound, and is supported by both the Commission’s terms of reference and High Court precedent, but it has not been used consistently. Heydon has produced detailed findings, including recommendations that prosecuting authorities “consider” criminal charges, in several cases involving officials from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union that are before the courts.

The Commissioner in his interim report retreated somewhat from Stoljar’s bald statements in his final submissions that officials had “committed criminal offences” after receiving spirited responses from the CFMEU and other unions which pointed out that the Commission did not have the power to make findings of guilt.

The Commission was constituted 13 March 2014. After 76 days of hearings, 687 notices to produce, 239 witness appearances and $53 million of public money, the results must be disheartening, to say the least, to the Abbott government.

Aside from the already known existence of corruption among a number of officials in the HSU East Branch, and the Wilson-Blewitt AWU slush fund affair, it has failed to uncover systemic – or even any other significant cases of – corrupt self-enrichment by union officials at the expense of union members. Stoljar conceded in his final submissions that allegations of CFMEU officials in New South Wales and Queensland receiving or seeking bribes were “unsubstantiated”.

“The body count has been so low some in the media room took to joking about being assigned to cover [the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption], where it reached double digits with 12 state or federal Liberal MPs who have resigned or stood aside,” journalist for Thomson Reuters’ industrial relations news service Paul Karp wrote on November 11.

Karp also commented on the failure to land any blows against Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon over a union fund used in political and union campaigns. Unable to recommend that any charges should be laid, Stoljar “was reduced to observing that his conduct evinces a ‘culture of entitlement’ among the fund directors. If it was their money in their fund, perhaps they were entitled to think it could be used by them for their benefit.”

There are several cases where Heydon recommends prosecuting authorities consider charging individuals, but in almost all instances, these cases relate to industrial action.

The interim report does not make recommendations for policy reform; however, Stoljar’s submissions indicate the Commission will recommend attacks on industry superannuation funds and attempts to further regulate industrial relations by corporations law and criminal law. [These anticipated policy recommendations will be the subject of a future article in this series.]

Stage managing

Leaving aside for the moment the approach of the Commission and the content of its case studies, it’s worth taking a look back at the highlights of the political theatre of the past year that has been orchestrated by the Abbott government and the officers of the Commission itself.

From the start, Murdoch’s Herald-Sun newspaper appears to have been granted special access to the office of the Commission. A major leak in relation to the subject and content of private hearings and future public hearings in July went to several outlets, including the Herald-Sun and the Age.

On 3 July 2014, the day the CFMEU’s counsel was informed that hearings the following week would include a case study in Melbourne being the Pentridge Prison site”, the Herald-Sun said there would be “an explosive video and claims of corruption, death threats and intimidation” aired in the Commission the following week.

The following day, the Age uploaded video and audio recordings as part of its allegations around the Pentridge site. The same day, 4 July 2014, the Age also ran allegations it said were from private hearings.

The CFMEU wrote to the chief executive officer of the Commission, Jane Fitzgerald, saying: “These events suggest that not only the subject of next week’s Commission hearings but the evidence itself has been leaked to the media.” The union called on the office of the Commission to ask the Australian Federal Police to “investigate whether anyone from the Commission has been involved in the leaking of material to the media”.

Fitzgerald, and then Heydon, simply dismissed out of hand the allegation that officers of the Commission had been involved in a leak and refused to have the matter investigated internally or independently.

When a female lawyer working for the Commission was physically assaulted and injured in a car park on 18 September 2014, the Herald-Sun ran the story the following morning including the line: “The commission released a statement last night exclusively to the Herald-Sun”. The attack was random and unrelated to any aspect of the Commission, and the Herald-Sun did not explicitly claim there was a connection, though it mentioned the CFMEU and “bikies” in the article. But why is a royal commission providing selective briefings and “exclusive statements” to a favoured media outlet instead of issuing a general press release?

In July 2014, the ACTU was leaked a copy of a ‘scoping questionnaire’ that had been sent to all federal government departments and agencies by the Attorney General’s department asking them to disclose all contact with any union over the previous 10 years. ACTU Assistant Secretary Tim Lyons wrote in Working Life on 29 July 2014, “Although it’s notionally about the royal commission into unions, it goes well beyond the Commission’s terms of reference and seems to imply that any consultation with unions on public policy matters, and even negotiating a workplace agreement with unions representing public servants is somehow illegitimate”.

Those who said the union movement’s claim that the royal commission was a politically motivated witch-hunt was exaggerated should have been forced to think twice after the Attorney General department’s demand.

Then on 8 October 2014, Attorney General George Brandis announced that the Heydon royal commission would be extended by a year, and its terms of reference widened. Brandis said this was in response to the letter he received from Heydon reporting on his progress the previous week. But Heydon had clearly stated: “This letter is neither an application to widen the terms of reference nor an application to extend the reporting date.”

Brandis pushed out the reporting date by a year from December 2014 to December 2015. He boosted the Commission’s budget from $53 million to $61 million.

Clearly another year of mud-slinging against the union movement will give the deeply unpopular Abbott government a better chance of winning public support for its plan to make major reforms to the workplace relations system following the Productivity Commission’s review of the Fair Work Act which began in December. It means the Commissioner’s final report will be released in the lead-up to the 2016 federal elections.

The federal opposition pointed out that Brandis had taken just five days to respond to Heydon’s letter, but more than two months to respond to Justice Peter McLellan’s July actual request for an extension in the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Brandis confirmed during Senate Estimates that “the government made the decision to extend the Royal Commission”.

Election stunts

Then there was joint police task force into union-related crime that got announced twice – once by the Attorney General’s department in February 2014, and once more for luck on 31 October 2014, shortly before the Victorian state election.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten had proposed creating a “multi-jurisdictional taskforce” in February 2014. The CFMEU has written to the police commissioners of Victoria and NSW several times since January 2014 pledging the union’s full cooperation with the police in any investigation into criminal activity in the building industry.

But the theme of the Victorian state election, a contest in which the first-term Napthine government was struggling, was set.

The Victorian Police Commissioner Ken Lay was informed the night before the 31 October announcement, by email, that then Victorian Premier Denis Napthine and Abbott would be holding a press conference in the morning about the joint police task force.

That evening Tom Iggulden reported on the ABC News: “The Herald-Sun was, however, kept in the loop. Details of the taskforce unknown to the [police] commissioner were splashed across the News Limited outlet this morning.” The front page headline read, “Cops hunt union rats”.

The task force would include up to 30 Victorian and federal police officers who would investigate allegations aired by the Heydon Commission, and report back to the Commission.

Question Time in the federal parliament was dominated by feverish claims in the weeks leading up to the Victorian vote, with federal justice minister Michael Keenan saying on 26 November that “Voters in Victoria need to be aware that a vote for Labor on Saturday is literally a vote for the CFMEU to have a seat at the cabinet table.” Education minister Christopher Pyne claimed the day before that “[Victorians] do not want the bikies back running Victoria. A vote for Labor on Saturday is a vote for the CFMEU and John Setka.”

All of which of course made the Liberal loss of government, ensured by a grass-roots campaign by trade union activists led by Victorian Trades Hall Council, all the sweeter.

And lastly, the timing of the release of the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s review of the Fair Work Act – delayed since March 2014 and announced on the Friday before Christmas, minus Abbott, and just a few hours after Heydon’s interim report was released – was the final act in a year of politically motivated and orchestrated stunts relating to this royal commission.

Despite the combined efforts of the government and the Commission itself, it’s fallen flat. But then, the Abbott government has given it another year to do better.

Media role in TURC: Giving credit where it’s due

Since 2011, the Liberals have viewed ‘union corruption’ as both their ticket to power and as a central tool in their attempt to condition the Australian public for their industrial relations agenda.

It’s easy to forget the ferocity of the Liberal campaign against then federal Labor MP and former leading Health Services Union official Craig Thomson that was unleashed in 2011. The opposition bayed for blood and fostered a media frenzy over allegations of his corrupt behaviour as a union official in the belief that the minority Labor government, which then held power in the federal parliament by a single seat, would fall.

Liberal strategists saw the opportunity to tarnish then prime minister Julia Gillard with the same brush of ‘union corruption’ by dusting off old rumours about legal advice she was alleged to have provided in connection with the Australian Workers’ Union slush fund. Weak as the evidence was, and tenuous as the ‘union corruption’ link was, it would have to do.

Still apprehensive about the united and effective Your Rights at Work campaign that forced the Howard Liberal government from power in 2007, the AWU and HSU scandals combined did not quite amount to the ammunition the Abbott government needed to mount a full-scale attack on the trade union movement immediately following his election in September 2013.

Fairfax & ABC’s ‘joint investigation’

But the ABC and Fairfax Media stepped in to provide the government with the justification it needed to broaden its promised judicial inquiry into the AWU into a fully-fledged royal commission which targeted five trade unions and demanded the last seven years’ worth of financial, contractual and personnel records from every branch of the named unions.

A joint investigation by the ABC’s 7.30 Report and Fairfax Media resulted in a series of stories being published and aired on January 28 and 29, 2014, which alleged widespread criminality, intimidation and corruption in the construction industry. Dramatic CCTV footage of Comanchero bikies apparently trying to collect a debt from the Master Builders Association’s Trevor Evans at his home opened the 7.30 Report. The reporter failed to explain how this incident was connected with construction workers or their union.

Since January last year, the 7.30 Report in particular has provided a platform to anyone with a grievance against the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). This has ranged from disgruntled union officials to dodgy builders, from organised crime figures with scores to settle to the head of the Fair Work Building Industry Inspectorate (FWBC), Nigel Hadgkiss.

The central allegation reported in Fairfax Media in January last year was: “Union officials have formed corrupt relationships with organised crime figures, receiving kickbacks in exchange for arranging lucrative contracts in the construction industry.” The ABC alleged “systemic bribery” of union officials. The investigation claimed that six Victorian CFMEU officials had received bribes.

Victorian organiser Danny Berardi resigned from his position when journalists provided evidence that he had accepted free renovation work in exchange for helping two companies get contracts. However, aside from Berardi, no other details or names were provided: “For legal reasons specific details cannot be aired,” the ABC said.

The 7.30 Report ran a story on 28 January featuring an interview with CFMEU NSW official Brian Fitzpatrick who alleged that there were links between NSW union officials and companies run by alleged crime figure George Alex.

The following night it ran a story featuring an interview with Victorian builder Andrew Zaf, who claimed he had provided $10,000 in roofing material to CFMEU Victorian Secretary John Setka, then a union organiser, in the mid-1990s. He also claimed he had written a cheque for $10,000-$12,000 to pay for Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to visit Australia. Against footage of Adams’s 1999 visit, reporter Nick McKenzie said: “When the union brought Irish republican leader to Australia, Zaf was asked to chip in.”

Widening the scope

The ABC and Fairfax both claimed credit for the government’s move to establish the Heydon Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, which was announced less than a fortnight after their joint investigation. “The scope of the inquiry was dramatically widened into a royal commission after extensive reports in Fairfax Media,” Fairfax journalists wrote in a subsequent article.

In the same edition of the 7.30 Report on 29 January that featured Andrew Zaf, host Leigh Sales later interviewed Treasurer Joe Hockey and helpfully opened with: “The revelations of union corruption have given the Abbott Government ammunition to argue both the case for more union oversight and for an inquiry into corruption.” Then, to Hockey: “Do you think that a royal commission into union corruption is warranted?”

He replied: “Well certainly we promised before the election to have a judicial review, but there is mounting evidence now that there are systemic problems in the union movement that need to be fully exposed and addressed.”

Later in the year, businessperson Jim Byrnes starred in an episode of the 7.30 Report in which he claimed he had seen his rival George Alex pass an envelope, which conveniently had “$3,000” written on it, to NSW CFMEU organiser Darren Greenfield at a meeting. Byrnes’s is to date the only “eyewitness” account of a union official accepting a bribe. Greenfield denies ever having been in any meeting together with Byrnes in his life.

Discredited

The royal commission itself has since shown many of the claims made by the ABC and Fairfax to be either totally false or unsubstantiated.

There’s a big difference between widespread corruption in the construction industry and widespread corruption in the construction union.

CFMEU leaders said they were in full agreement with the view that organised crime was rife in the industry, and that they had been pressing for years for the police and the corporate regulator, Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), to investigate criminal activity. It also pointed out that the union plays “no part in deciding whether particular labour hire companies got contracts on construction projects,” nor is it “in a position to check the property, or other interests or connections of employers and managers of companies”.

Before the Fitzpatrick allegations about CFMEU officials in NSW collaborating with George Alex were publicly aired, the claim was already the subject of an internal union investigation and the NSW branch of the union had recovered $250,000 in unpaid workers’ entitlements from Alex companies.

As the CFMEU legal team wrote in their response to the final submissions of Jeremy Stoljar, Counsel Assisting the Commission, “The investigation into allegations made by Mr Fitzpatrick about the relationship between the NSW Branch and the Alex Companies is ongoing. The most serious of the allegations arising from that investigation, that officers of the NSW branch received cash bribes, was, as Counsel Assisting submits, unsubstantiated. There was insufficient evidence. A similar allegation by [Lis-Con boss Eoin] O’Neill that officers in the Queensland branch sought cash payments is also described as unsubstantiated.”

Jim Byrnes, who later repeated his allegations before the Commission following his September appearance on the 7.30 Report, admitted on air that he had fallen out with Alex and said: “I’d like to see him in prison. Cause I’d like, I’d like him to have someone just lean over his shoulder and whisper my name in his ear.” Byrnes served time in jail for supplying heroin and assault before acting as an adviser to notoriously corrupt and bankrupted businessman Alan Bond, and has been banned by ASIC twice from managing companies.

An allegation – reported as fact by the Herald Sun in August 2014 and repeated by Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Fontana to the Heydon Royal Commission in September 2014 – that one of the Comancheros collecting a debt in the 7.30 Report’s January 2014 footage, Norm Meyer, was a CFMEU official, was categorically denied by the union.

Fontana claimed in the Commission that he had police intelligence that showed several “union officials” were “members of outlaw motorcycle gangs”.

In a cross-examination by CFMEU counsel John Agius, which really ought to be immortalised in song, Fontana admitted that by “union officials” he meant “union official”, specifically Norm Meyer, and by “police intelligence” he meant a photo of a union rally he had seen in the Herald Sun.

After Agius informed him that not only was Meyer not a union official, he had not even been a financial member of the union for the previous two years, Fontana admitted: “I got that wrong. I apologise.” Pressed further by Agius who asked, “So there’s no intelligence or evidence that any union officials of the CFMEU are members of an outlaw motorcycle gang?,” Fontana replied, “Not to my knowledge.”

Fontana then conceded under questioning that no CFMEU official had ever been charged with blackmail, corruption or drug crimes despite his opening claims that he believed union officials were involved in these crimes. This didn’t stop the Herald Sun from running an utterly dishonest editorial on 20 September 2014 in which Fontana’s initial claims, but not his retractions, were reported. It was titled, “Muzzle union things now”.

And as for Andrew Zaf, he has emerged as the most thoroughly discredited witness to appear before the Commission yet, with the exception of Kathy Jackson. The trip by Gerry Adams to Australia that Zaf referred to was organised independently by Irish solidarity organisations, not by the CFMEU, and the international air fares were purchased by Sinn Féin’s Belfast office.

Zaf had claimed in January that he paid for the trip that occurred in 1999; before the Commission on 17 September 2014 he said his records from ANZ Bank show he had written a cheque for $10,000 in 1997, and moments later he said he wrote this cheque prior to 1994. It’s on the public record that Adams was denied an entry visa to Australia until 1999, after the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998.

In July Zaf told the Commission he had “no personal enemies” only to be threatened by Hells Angels over a disputed debt four days later. In his September appearance Zaf was forced to deny having pulled a gun on then CFMEU organiser Maurice Hill in 1994. Evidence was produced showing the Victorian Trades Hall Council had passed a motion condemning the incident at the time.

Finally, in November, Slater and Gordon lawyers acting for the CFMEU wrote to the Commission enclosing a statement from Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Luke Hilakari that included information about Zaf from a former associate that challenged the evidence he had provided to the Commission. Heydon agreed to omit any reference to Zaf’s allegations from his interim report.

Shoddy and unsubstantiated 

So what was actually demonstrated by the ABC-Fairfax joint investigation was that motorcycle gangs and organised crime figures are involved in the construction industry, and that one junior CFMEU official acted corruptly and immediately resigned after the union leadership was made aware of this. Hardly a justification for a royal commission into the entire trade union movement.

Generally when a media outlet claims it cannot publish specific details or name names for “legal reasons”, that means it doesn’t have the evidence to back up an allegation that could withstand a defamation suit. Given the dubious quality of the “whistleblowers” the ABC and Fairfax are relying on for these “specific details”, and the unbelievably woeful fact-checking of the journalists, you’ll forgive me for looking at their entire investigation with a healthy amount of skepticism.

These sensationalist, poorly researched and unsubstantiated articles, which were enthusiastically seized upon by the Abbott government to launch the Heydon royal commission, should be a source of embarrassment to the ABC and Fairfax Media, not a source of pride.

TURC: Abbott’s glaring double standards

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, right, and Employment Minister Eric Abetz

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, right, and Employment Minister Eric Abetz

Releasing the interim report of the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption on December 19, Employment Minister Eric Abetz said the findings showed the decision to hold a royal commission into unions had been “vindicated”. But if almost every substantial case examined by the Heydon Commission was already making its way through the legal system, surely that suggests the system was working. A royal commission is a tool the executive arm of government can effectively employ when there is a serious failure by the existing regulatory system.

Counsel for the CFMEU in the Commission, John Agius, pointed out in his oral submission to the Heydon Commission in November that the role of a royal commission “traditionally and [which] ought still to be the case is one of using its coercive powers to discover evidence that might not otherwise be available to investigative bodies”.

In December 2013, three months after his election, Liberal PM Tony Abbott announced a royal commission into the former Labor government’s home insulation scheme in which four installers died, and announced the Heydon royal commission into unions in February 2014. Kevin Rudd is the target of the first and Julia Gillard one of the key targets of the latter.

Even former Liberal PM John Howard publicly reprimanded Abbott over the blatantly political use, or misuse, of the royal commission as an instrument of government in a September 2014 Channel 7 TV interview, pointing out there had already been a coronial investigation into the home insulation scheme.

“I’m uneasy about the idea of having royal commissions or inquiries into essentially a political decision on which the public has already delivered a verdict… I don’t think you should ever begin to go down the American path of using the law for narrow targeted political purposes,” Howard said.

Admittedly, this was a bit rich coming from the man who had established the Cole Royal Commission into the building unions that cost taxpayers $60 million and did not result in a single prosecution of a union official. As the Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU) has repeatedly pointed out, every Liberal government in power since 1972 has held a royal commission into trade unions.

Systemic failures?

There are several areas of Australian corporate and political life that are plagued by systemic failures and which the public would benefit from an inquiry with coercive investigative powers being held. Two examples here will suffice.

The Abbott government’s political mantra since coming to power has been that there is a need to drastically cut public spending in the healthcare, education, welfare and community sectors in order to repair the federal budget deficit. But a report released in September 2014 by the United Voice union and Tax Justice Network Australia revealed that of the ASX 200 companies, almost one-third pay less than 10% tax when the statutory rate is 30%, and 57% have subsidiaries in tax haven jurisdictions. This systemic tax avoidance by major companies results in the loss to the public purse of $8.4 billion in revenue each year, the report estimates.

This report was followed in November 2014 by the revelation that dozens of Australian corporations including Lend Lease, AMP and the Macquarie Group were among the 343 companies who struck deals with Luxembourg to shift profits through tax havens and used accounting giant PriceWaterhouse Coopers to drastically cut the amount of tax they paid – in some cases reducing it to almost nothing.

But not only has the Abbott government avoided ordering a royal commission, or any kind of inquiry, into what is clearly a systemic problem that has massive implications for the Australian public – it has dropped its pledge to take any action on tax avoidance whatsoever.

In November 2013, Treasurer Joe Hockey declared that the government would not legislate the former Gillard government’s plan to reduce tax minimisation by abolishing the loophole of generous deductions being available under sections 25-90 of the Tax Assessment Act 1997. Its abolition would have boosted public revenue by around $600 million. Hockey said in the 2013-2014 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) report that this would place “unreasonable compliance costs” on such companies, and pledged to “introduce a targeted anti‑avoidance provision after detailed consultation with stakeholders” instead. But in the 2014-2015 MYEFO report announced in November, the Treasurer quietly dropped even this watered-down pledge to tackle tax avoidance and minimisation.

Of course, the most glaring double standard of all when it comes to the use of a royal commission is the Abbott government’s failure to establish one into the systemic failures of corporate regulator the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), particularly in relation to its investigation of the actions of the Commonwealth Bank’s financial planning subsidiary CBFL during 2006-2010.

More than a thousand CBFL customers lost millions of dollars during the global financial crisis after their bonus-seeking advisers invested their money in high-risk products without their clients’ permission. The Commonwealth Bank’s attempted cover-up and the ASIC’s incompetence on all fronts was the subject of a five-month inquiry by a Senate Committee that reported in June 2014 – specifically recommending that a royal commission be held into the ASIC’s failures. The Abbott government rejected the recommendation.

“Still, it’s only shareholders’ wealth at stake in corporate regulation — wealth that, while worth $1.5 trillion in market capitalisation, is obviously a lower priority for the government than union membership fees and assets, which perhaps total a couple of hundred million dollars,” Crikey journalist Bernard Keane commented on February 10 last year. “If unions were indeed regulated just like businesses, as many in the Coalition (and the Institute of Public Affairs) want, crooked union officials would be over the moon at the prospect of getting to keep their bribes and avoid jail.”

Political cover

The fact that Howard’s hated Work Choices reforms remained so politically toxic six years after he was booted from office meant that Abbott – under pressure from business groups to impose restrictions on collective bargaining and union power, cut penalty rates and much more – made an election promise that the Productivity Commission would review the Labor government’s Fair Work Act that replaced Work Choices within the Coalition’s first six months of government. Any proposals for change arising from the review, he said, would be brought to the electorate in the 2016 elections before being implemented.

The draft terms of reference of the Productivity Commission’s ‘Workplace Relations Framework Review’ were leaked in March last year, and it was initially due to report in April 2015. But the government delayed the announcement of the very same terms of reference for nine months, making a weak excuse about having a lot on its plate, and conveniently waiting until four state elections were over.

The claim that Coalition politicians have been repeating for years – that labour productivity has been consistently declining as a result of the Fair Work Act, while at the same time Australia is experiencing a “wages explosion” – don’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that labour productivity has increased by 8% from March 2011 to March 2014. But wage growth was at 2.6% in the year to September 2014, barely passing the inflation rate of 2.3%.

The facts are undermining the conservatives’ traditional economic justification for their ideological agenda. Something more is needed. Just as the so-called Commission of Audit (October 2013 – March 2014) was used by the Abbott Government as an attempt to provide political cover for its first budget, which provoked still-lingering outrage among the Australian people last May, the government lives in hope that the union royal commission will provide justification for its main game – the implementation of the anti-worker reforms that will inevitably come from the Productivity Commission review. The more mud that is slung at the union movement, the weaker the potential resistance to these reforms will be.

If anyone had any doubt that this was the government’s strategy, it has surely been dispelled by now. Abetz announced the publication of the interim report by the Heydon royal commission on the morning of 19 December 2014. The same afternoon, Hockey finally announced the terms of reference for the Productivity Commission’s review, ensuring that if it was covered by the media at all it would inevitably be reported in the same breath as the term “union corruption”.

Uniting Ireland campaign promoted in Australia

From left: Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy, Australian Congress of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney and Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald TD in Melbourne in September 2014

From left: Sinn Féin MP Francie Molloy, Australian Congress of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney and Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald TD in Melbourne in September 2014

Published in An Phoblacht, October 1, 2014

Sinn Féin Vice President Mary Lou McDonald TD and MP for Mid-Ulster Francie Molloy carried out a national speaking tour of Australia from August 30 – September 9 2014 to promote the Australian Uniting Ireland Campaign. The two Sinn Féin representatives were accompanied on the tour by Cairde Sinn Féin’s Emma Clancy, and they visited Perth, Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane to meet with the Irish community, labour movement activists and leaders, and academics.

At a series of public events they addressed more than 1,000 members of the Irish community in Australia. They also met with dozens of Australian political representatives from the Australian Labor Party, the Greens, the Nationals, and the Liberal Party from across the country.

The Sinn Féin representatives outlined the role of the diaspora and Australian labour and political forces in supporting the international campaign for a referendum on Irish reunification.

Molloy and McDonald also raised issues faced by the local Irish emigrant community with political representatives, including the campaign against unaffordable school fees for the children of skilled migrants working in Australia on the 457 visa (which affects Western Australia, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory). Another goal of the tour was to raise awareness among Irish workers in Australia of their workplace rights and entitlements.

Australian MPs support ‘Irish Unity Motion’

During the tour, the Sinn Féin representatives spoke with several Australian MPs and senators in the state and federal parliaments, including federal Shadow Minister for Workplace Relations Brendan O’Connor and Education Minister in the Australian Capital Territory government Joy Burch. A political briefing was held in the Federal, New South Wales and Victorian parliaments. In New South Wales, they met with Labor leader in the NSW Parliament John Robertson as well as Shadow Attorney General and long-time Irish solidarity supporter Paul Lynch, and several MPs. In Western Australia they met with Parliamentary Secretary Vince Catania, while in Victoria they met with a group of MPs including the President of the state Legislative Council Bruce Atkinson at a briefing hosted by MP Bronwyn Halfpenny. The federal parliamentary briefing was hosted by Senator Gavin Marshall.

Altogether they met with 38 MPs and senators across Australia, many of whom had already signed up to the Australian Irish Unity Motion or did so during the tour.

Other highlights of the speaking tour included meeting with Aboriginal activists in Perth and Sydney; visiting the Global Irish Studies Centre at the University of New South Wales; a meeting of women trade unionists with McDonald in Sydney; Molloy meeting with the Australian Tamil Congress; and McDonald addressing a rally against austerity in Perth.

Supporting workplace rights for Irish workers

The tour was warmly received by the Australian trade union movement, whice supported and hosted several of the events. McDonald and Molloy met with Australian Congress of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney in Melbourne, as well as Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) national leaders Dave Noonan and Tony Maher and Maritime Union of Australia assistant national secretary Mick Doleman at a union-hosted event in Sydney on September 2. They also met with several state leaders of the CFMEU including Brian Parker and Mick Buchan, as well as leaders and activists from many other unions throughout the tour.

As well as building links of solidarity between progressive forces in Ireland and Australia with the trade unionists, the Sinn Féin representatives also discussed developing joint efforts to combat the exploitation of Irish workers in Australia on temporary visas and to promote union membership among Irish workers as part of this. Following the speaking tour of Australia by Pearse Doherty TD in 2012, Cairde Sinn Féin worked with Australian and Irish unions to produce a ‘Know Your Rights at Work Down Under’ pamphlet which McDonald and Molloy continued to promote among Irish workers during this tour.

The speaking tour was organised by Cairde Sinn Féin Australia and supported by the Casement Group Melbourne, the Brehon Law Society and the Irish National Association.

For full details of the tour, and to download the ‘Know Your Rights at Work Down Under’ pamphlet, visit cairdesinnfein.com.

For a full list of signatories to the Australian Irish Unity Motion visit irishunity.org.

Easter Rising remembered in Sydney, 2014

Emma Clancy addresses the 1916 Commemoration at Waverly on April 20, 2014

Emma Clancy addresses the 1916 Commemoration at Waverly on April 20, 2014

Below is a speech delivered by Emma Clancy on behalf of Cairde Sinn Féin Australia on April 20, 2014, at Waverly Cemetery, Sydney

I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. It’s only fitting as we meet to commemorate a rising against injustices perpetrated by British colonial power that we remember the devastating consequences of this same power on the Aboriginal peoples of Australia.

I want to thank the Irish National Association for inviting me to speak today. I want to thank them too for the enormous amount of effort they have put in over many decades to maintain this monument in honour of Michael Dwyer, and all those who fought for full independence and equality in the 1798 rebellion. 1798 marked the birth of the modern Irish republican movement.

Michael Dwyer, who remains were brought here in 1898, was a leader of the United Irishmen during the 1798 rebellion. He was 26 when the rebellion began, and after fighting in Wexford, he led a guerrilla campaign against British forces from the Wicklow mountains for more than five years before being transported to Australia with his wife in 1806.

Sydney’s Irish community built this remarkable monument in 1898, on the centenary of the United Irish rebellion.

Now we are fast approaching another centenary – that of the Easter Rising, which we commemorate today.

Easter Rising

Republicans across Ireland and around the world are gathering this weekend to remember those who gave their lives in pursuit of Irish freedom in 1916. This year is the 98th anniversary of the Rising.

In 1916, Dublin was the city that fought an empire. On Easter Monday, 1200 men and women set out to bring an end to British rule in Ireland during the First World War – in their words, to “strike a blow for freedom”. The leaders, including the seven signatories to the Proclamation, were all executed by the British in the weeks that followed.

The nationalist women’s organisation Cumann na mBan, founded 100 years ago this year, created the Easter lily in 1925 as a tribute to all those who died in the struggle for independence from British rule.

Wearing Easter lilies to honour Ireland’s patriot dead today, we make no distinction between those who died in 1916 and those who died in 1981. We honour equally the Republican men and women who fell in the years of struggle from 1916 to 1923 and those who gave their lives in the recent conflict that broke out in 1969.

And we remember not only the individuals who led the Easter Rising, but also their vision and the ideals they died for. These ideals were best articulated by James Connolly, Pádaric Pearse and the other signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic – of national sovereignty, equality, social justice, and democratic rights for all.

The fact that almost 100 years later we are meeting here today to remember the Rising, halfway across the world in Sydney, is testament to the impact that the vision and action of the men and women of 1916 has had.

Decade of centenaries

Last year marked the beginning of a decade of centenaries of pivotal events in Ireland’s struggle for independence.

Last year we marked the Centenary of the Great Lockout of 1913 when the bosses of Dublin declared war on the workers and their families.

The choice presented to the workers was stark. They could obey the bosses, resign from their union and go back to their tenement slums and their poverty with their heads down. Or they could resist. Thousands chose resistance.

Through the summer and autumn and winter of 1913 and 1914 they faced police brutality, press vilification, Church condemnation and starvation. They seemed defeated but out of their struggle arose a revived trade union movement and a proud working class.

Again and again, in the decades since the Lockout, those whom Wolfe Tone called the people of no property were offered that same choice – resign or resist.

They were told to resign themselves to their fate when Ireland was partitioned and a sectarian Orange state established in the Six Counties. But the followers of Tone and Connolly refused again resisted, and stood by the Proclamation of the Republic.

Half a century after the Proclamation, the Civil Rights movement stepped forward and was met with the same choice – resign yourselves to the reality of this one-party sectarian state or resist.

They chose resistance. RUC brutality was resisted. Internment was resisted. The British Army was resisted. Criminalisation in the H-Blocks and Armagh was resisted. Collusion and censorship and the demonization of whole communities were resisted.

They could not defeat a risen people.

But as we know, the struggle isn’t over. Republicans had always made clear that if a peaceful and democratic path of struggle towards our objectives was opened up then we were morally and politically obliged to take that path.

The peace process opened that new way forward and the IRA, with the same courage they showed during every phase of the struggle, endorsed that new strategy, that new road to our objectives, and set aside armed actions for good.

The peace process must be built upon and this is a work in progress. While the North in particular has been transformed for the better in recent years, the scourge of sectarianism remains. The past threatens to trip up the future.

Dealing with the past

Overcoming sectarianism and taking steps towards reconciliation involves reaching out to the unionist community. A real reconciliation process is essential in order to create trust between unionists and nationalists and between both parts of Ireland.

Those of you who follow Irish politics closely would know it is over three months now since Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O’Sullivan presented compromise proposals to deal with the outstanding issues of flags, parades and the past.

Political unionism has either rejected the Haass proposals or prevaricated. The negative approach of the British government has facilitated this. The British have walked away from their commitments under the Good Friday and subsequent Agreements and this is having the effect of emboldening intransigent unionism.

The Irish Government has already agreed that Haass represents the best way forward. But to achieve progress on implementation of the Haass proposals requires the British Government to take up a clear and unambiguous position in support of Haass.

There is currently an effort on the part of political unionism to roll back on the progress that has been made since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved 16 years ago. This cannot be allowed to happen.

There remain many outstanding justice and legacy issues in the North that need to be addressed. These include ongoing struggles over truth recovery, and ensuring there is transparency, accountability and a rights-based approach to policing and justice. Republicans in Ireland are engaged in political struggles over these issues every day. We here in Australia can play our part in bringing pressure to bear on the British and Irish governments to fulfil their obligations under the Good Friday and other Agreements.

Irish republicans in Australia have added to international pressure to defend the rights of republican communities in the North in the past. During the 1981 hunger strike, the Diaspora mobilised around the world in support of the prisoners’ rights, including here in Australia. Thousands marched through the streets of Australian cities. After Bobby Sands died on hunger strike, shipworkers in Wollongong refused to handle British ships coming through the port in protest. Support like this is very much appreciated from those in Ireland.

Austerity

The Proclamation of 1916 continues to enthuse and motivate Irish republicans struggling for reunification, and for equality. Its message of freedom, and of cherishing all the children of the nation equally, is as relevant today as it was then.

Before his execution in 1916, James Connolly predicted that the Partition of Ireland would lead to a carnival of reaction. And so it did. Partition created two reactionary states in Ireland, which the conservative political, church and business elites shaped to protect their self-interests.

The southern Irish state of today is not a place where the principles of the Proclamation have been lived up to. Far from it.

It is, on the contrary, a state in which a corrupt political elite has brought the economy to its knees in order to prop up and pay their equally corrupt allies in the Irish banking sector. It is not a state of equal opportunities for all citizens; it is instead a state of brown envelopes and golden circles.

Irish people North and South have faced a considerable period of economic hardship. Hundreds of thousands are unemployed. Many more are struggling to survive. Highly educated, intelligent young people are leaving the country as emigration continues to be used by the Irish Government as a safety valve. Many of them are arriving here in Australia.

The Irish people have been forced to witness the spectacle of an Irish government acting as a mere agent for the EU and IMF in Ireland.

The enforced austerity by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition in Dublin and the Tory-led coalition in London is the antithesis of everything the Rising and Proclamation envisaged.  To stand for the ideals of 1916, must mean standing against austerity; and standing up for the vulnerable, those unable to care for themselves, and the working poor, north and south.

There is no middle way between the inequality driven by British and Irish conservatives, and the egalitarian values of our Proclamation.

The Irish people have once again been faced with the choice of resigning to vicious austerity or resisting.

We can take heart in the fact that people are standing up and fighting back. Republican ideas and politics have more popular support today than they have for almost 100 years. More and more people are getting involved in a new political struggle for the Irish people to be able to determine their own affairs and have ownership of the country’s resources.

Young people are increasingly getting involved in the struggle for this New Republic, including taking up challenging leadership roles across Ireland and making republican politics relevant to a new generation.

They are guided by the principles of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and putting forward realistic alternative policies based on that vision.

Role of diaspora

Today, the mobilisation of the diaspora in support of Irish unity is a central part of Sinn Féin’s strategy for reunification.

In recent years we launched the Uniting Ireland campaign – a broad national and international campaign to build political support for Irish reunification through a border poll. Large and successful conferences have been held on this theme in the US, Canada and Britain. This year this important campaign is being launched in Australia, and we urge all republicans in Australia to support it.

We’re delighted to be able to announce that Sinn Féin Vp MLM will be visiting Australia to support this campaign in September this year.

In the lead-up to the Centenary events to commemorate the Easter Rising in 2016, we also urge republicans in Australia and around the world to ensure a renewed focus is placed on Easter events in the coming years. The INA, Cairde Sinn Féin Australia, together with others, are now initiating planning for nationally coordinated Easter commemorations across the country in 2016.

The launch of the Uniting Ireland campaign in Australia, and the momentum that will gather in the lead-up to 2016, provide an important opportunity for republicans in Australia to play their part in the struggle for Irish unity.

Bobby Sands once said: “Everyone, republican or otherwise, has their own particular role to play.” Each of us can contribute to achieving the historic task set by the men and women of 1916 – a united Ireland and a New Republic.

Madrid’s Basque stance absurd and untenable

More than 100,000 Basques march for the repatriation of political prisoners in Bilbao in January 2014

More than 100,000 Basques march for the repatriation of political prisoners in Bilbao in January 2014

Published on basquepeaceprocess.info on 11 March, 2014

The Spanish government’s response to the move by armed Basque pro-independence organisation ETA to put its weapons beyond use has demonstrated beyond doubt that it favours the continuation of conflict over peace. On 21 February, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Homeland and Freedom) released a video showing two of its members meeting with representatives of the International Verification Commission (IVC) who were inspecting a quantity of weapons that had been put beyond operational use.

The IVC held a press conference in Bilbao in the Basque Country the same day, at which spokesperson Ram Manikkalingam said: “The commission is confident that this step is significant and credible.” The Amsterdam-based IVC is not recognised by the Spanish government. It consists of six high-profile international experts in conflict resolution, and was formed in 2011 with the purpose of monitoring and verifying ETA’s permanent ceasefire. As well as Sri Lankan Manikkalingam, who has worked in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Ireland, the IVC also includes South Africa’s former deputy defence minister Ronnie Kasrils and former political director of the Northern Ireland Office Chris Maccabe.

The Spanish government’s response to the decommissioning move was to issue subpoenas to the members of the IVC for interrogation, summoning them to the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s political court in Madrid, for interrogation. There is still a possibility that the IVC members may be charged with “assisting a terrorist organisation”. Chief negotiator for the British government throughout much of the Irish peace process, Jonathan Powell, wrote in the Financial Times on March 4 that the decommissioning move “appears to be unalloyed good news. But the reaction in Spain has been bizarre.” Powell urged the Spanish and French governments to legislate in order to make witnessing the decommissioning process legal. ETA published a statement on 1 March declaring it had begun the process of putting its entire arsenal beyond use.

The other international organisation founded to assist the development of a Basque peace process is the International Contact Group led by South African lawyer Brian Currin, which aims to facilitate dialogue between the main actors. While attending a peace conference in Baiona in the northern Basque Country (within the French state) on 28 February, Currin and other members of the ICG were summoned to Paris by a French court to face questioning over their contacts with ETA.

Four decades of conflict

ETA was formed by a group of Basque students in 1959 under the Franco dictatorship as a response to the regime’s attempt to eradicate the ancient Basque language and culture; the students believed that only an independent state could ensure the survival of the Basque nation. After launching its armed campaign against the Spanish military and the paramilitary police force, the Guardia Civil, in 1968, ETA played a leading role in the anti-Franco resistance.

Its campaign for independence continued following the dictator’s death in 1975 as Spain’s ‘transition to democracy’ failed to allow the Basque people to determine their own political and constitutional arrangements. Only a minority of Basques voted in favour of the 1978 Constitution, which commits the armed forces to ensure the territorial integrity of the Spanish state. The continuing repression of both ETA and the broader Basque pro-independence movement – in particular, the widely documented use of torture by the security forces – after the transition has also fuelled the continuation of the conflict.

ETA attacks have killed 829 people since 1968, and Basque nationalists estimate victims of state violence number 475. The Euskal Memoria Foundation has documented 9,600 cases of torture of Basque prisoners over the past five decades. Attempts to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict began in the late 1980s. Basque ceasefires and negotiations in 1998 and 2006 broke down and armed actions resumed, but the desire for a negotiated solution has steadily grown among the Basque population.

In 1998, fearful of the closer relationship between the abertzale (patriotic) left and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Spanish judiciary initiated a criminalisation strategy that claimed ‘everything that surrounds ETA is ETA’ – that is, any cultural organisation, political party or media outlet that supported Basque independence was deemed to be part of ETA. Mass trials against political activists began and have continued ever since, while newspapers were shut down and political parties including Batasuna were banned following the Law of Political Parties in 2002, a law which insists all parties must denounce anti-state violence or be banned. Former UN Special Rapportuer Martin Scheinin said in a UN report in December 2008 that this law defined ‘terrorism’ so vaguely that it “might be interpreted to include any political party which through peaceful political means seeks similar political objectives” as those pursued by armed organisations.

The result has been a decade of disenfranchisement for supporters of the abertzale left. A new abertzale left party, Sortu, was founded in February 2011 and rejected violence, but the Spanish Supreme Court still refused to allow it to be legally registered. A challenge in the Constitutional Court, and international pressure on Madrid, resulted in Sortu being legalised conditionally in June 2012. The abertzale left, running in electoral coalitions Bildu and Amaiur in 2011 and 2012, won between 22 and 26% of the vote in the Basque Country, the largest support it has ever achieved.

Unilateralism and provocation

The disarmament move has been the latest in a series of unilateral acts by ETA taken since 2009 that aims to bring about the demilitarisation of the Basque political conflict with Spain and France, and initiate a process of conflict resolution that deals comprehensively with the consequences of the conflict, including disarmament, meeting the needs of victims, ending the exceptional measures used Basque political prisoners, and resolving the status of exiles.

Not only has there been no concessions, but at each stage since the beginning of the peace initiative by the abertzale left in 2009, the Spanish government has reacted with repressive measures that have appeared at times to be unbelievably provocative. The abertzale left has responded to the provocation with an exceptional degree of cohesion, unity and discipline.

On 13 October 2009, as the Abertzale Left leadership met to discuss activating the initiative that would lead to ETA’s permanent ceasefire, 10 leading activists were arrested – five of them in a police raid on the headquarters of the LAB trade union in Donostia/San Sebastian. Pro-independence political leader Arnaldo Otegi, LAB former general secretary Rafa Diez and three others were jailed by Judge Baltasar Garzon for at least six years on charges of attempting to reconstitute the leadership of banned political party Batasuna “on the orders of ETA”. Batasuna released a statement saying: “The aim of these arrests is to stop political initiatives that the Basque pro-independence movement was due to activate, political initiatives to resolve the ongoing conflict and to create a democratic scenario for the Basque Country.”

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Basques and Australian supporters at Sydney Opera House in January 2014. The banner reads, “Basque prisoners and exiles, home”

 

The initiative – the announcement that a strategic debate was to be launched across the movement about a new ceasefire and peace process – took place despite the arrests at a press conference by more than 100 leading members of the Abertzale Left on 14 November 2009 in Altsasu. The Spanish government responded by launching massive raids across the Basque Country 10 days later, arresting 40 alleged members of political youth organisation Segi, 32 of whom later said they were tortured during their five-day incommunicado detention. The trial of the youth activists on terrorism charges began in October 2013 and is ongoing.

ETA announced an end to offensive actions in 2010 as the strategic debate about an alternative strategy for achieving independence took place across the broader movement. On 17 October 2011 several international figures took part in an International Peace Conference, issuing the Declaration of Aiete – five recommendations that called on ETA to implement a definitive cessation of armed activity and request negotiations with the Spanish and French governments; and urged the governments to respond positively to such a request and put in place a process of addressing the consequences of the conflict.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, former Irish Taoiseach (PM) Bertie Ahern, Powell, former Norwegian PM Gro Harlem Brundtland and former French Interior Minister Pierre Joxe issued the declaration, which was endorsed by former US President Jimmy Carter and former British PM Tony Blair. The Declaration of Aiete was later endorsed by many leading Latin American political figures in Mexico in October 2013, including 13 former presidents. Lula de Silva became the latest international figure to endorse Aiete following the IVC announcement in February.

ETA responded to the Declaration of Aiete three days later by declaring a “definitive cessation” of armed actions. The groundswell of support among Basque society for an end to the conflict was demonstrated a few months later in January 2012 when around 100,000 people marched in a demonstration for the repatriation of the Basque prisoners. The number of Basque political prisoners – which include ETA activists but also hundreds of political and cultural activists, trade unionists and journalists as a result of the criminalisation policy – peaked at over 750 in 2010, the highest number since Franco’s death.

Prisoners – key to peace

In the wake of the massive show of support for prisoners’ rights in January 2012, a broad, legally registered, alliance formed the next month called Herrira (Return Home) to campaign for an end to the dispersal policy, an end to the Parot Doctrine and for the release of the seriously ill prisoners. Herrira organised an even bigger demonstration in favour of prisoners’ rights in Donostia in January 2013, which mobilised 115,000 people.

The Spanish government introduced its ‘dispersal’ policy in 1989 whereby it aims to isolate and demoralise Basque prisoners by transferring them to prisons across the state, as far from home as possible. It is a policy that punishes both prisoners and their families and has been condemned by the UN and human rights organisations. The Parot Doctrine introduced in 2006, applied retroactively, meant remission for Basque political prisoners jailed before the introduction of the current penal code in 1995 could be granted on prisoners’ original full sentences instead of the 30-year maximum term, effectively imposing life sentences. It had been applied to 93 prisoners, including 71 who were still in jail when it was ruled illegal by the European Court of Human Rights on 21 October 2013. Spain was forced to release them. There are also 15 terminally or chronically ill prisoners who are denied the medical care they require in jail. After the release of the Parot prisoners, there are currently 521 Basque prisoners held in 82 jails across the Spanish and French states, on average 600kms from their homes.

Just weeks before the ECHR ruling against the Parot Doctrine (which was widely expected to find in favour of the prisoners) the Spanish government struck pre-emptively by launching a major raid against Herrira on 30 September 2013, arresting 18 activists who were charged with terrorism offences and shutting down the organisation.

The EPPK (Basque Political Prisoners Collective) released a statement on 28 December 2013 confirming its support for a peace process, recognising the suffering caused by the conflict, and committing for the first time to aiming for the repatriation of prisoners on an individual basis through engaging with the Spanish legal framework. Spain responded in on 8 January this year by arresting and jailing eight mediators of the EPPK, including two lawyers, on the grounds that the EPPK was an “operational arm of ETA”.

A new organisation, Tantaz Tanta (Drop by Drop), which was established after Herrira was shut down, planned to hold a march for prisoners’ rights in Bilbao in January but the demonstration was banned by Judge Eloy Velasco from the Audiencia Nacional on the grounds that Tantaz Tanta had “links” to Herrira. Tantaz Tanta cancelled the march but Sortu and the LAB joined with the PNV and its affiliated union the ELA to call for a new march on 11 January, which drew 130,000 people out on to the streets of Bilbao in the largest protest in the history of the Basque Country, under the slogan ‘Human Rights, Resolution, Peace’. It was the first time since 1998 that the PNV and abertzale left held such a joint demonstration.

The Spanish government’s response to the IVC press conference demonstrates its growing sense of panic at ETA’s decision to exit the stage. In an interview from jail on 18 December with Mexico’s La Jornada, Arnaldo Otegi said: “The disappearance of ETA’s armed violence creates a serious problem for it, to the extent that there’s now no excuse not to tackle the real political debate, which is none other than respect for the Basque people’s right of self-determination.” The process could be immediately deepened and made irreversible by the repatriation of the prisoners to the Basque Country; yet instead it is likely that the Spanish government will step up its attempts to ban Sortu once again. Yet the unique opportunity to bring a four-decade armed conflict to an end has not gone unnoticed internationally, and Madrid’s active obstructionism to ETA decommissioning can be seen clearly as the deeply cynical move it is. Its stance is becoming increasingly hard to justify on the international stage.