Democracy at last - well almost

Dirty War, Clean Hands
September 28, 2001

Political processes are often complex. The Spanish transition from Franco's 40-year dictatorship to a democracy is a clear example. The ups and downs of the fledgling democracy are thoroughly described in Dirty War, Clean Hands by the Irish Times journalist Paddy Woodworth. The book gives an account of how Spanish society got rid of dictatorship and the many obstacles - including terrorism and the government policies to fight it - encountered on the way.

Woodworth argues that a priceless contribution in keeping the ghost of the dictatorship alive in the Basque country was the "dirty war" against the separatist and terrorist group Eta during Felipe González's socialist government of 1982 to 1996. His book is a rigorous investigation into the circumstances of this counter-terrorist policy, and exposes the less-than-positive aspects of a transition from dictatorship to democracy that has often been described as a model.

A dark side of the transition was the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (Gal). This group of men - some mercenaries, some members of the Spanish security forces - aimed to dismantle Eta's infrastructure in the French Basque country, a region where the terrorists enjoyed the convenient status of political refugees. The means Gal used were those of its enemies: bombings, shootings and kidnappings. Between 1983 and 1986, Gal claimed the lives of people, nine of whom had no connection with Eta. But Woodworth is very careful to point out that Eta itself has left a bloody trail of some 800 victims since 1968, with, of course, an equal number of devastated families.

When the investigation of Gal began it caused a national scandal. The socialists claimed that the Gal trial was a conspiracy to get them out of office. The process of investigation saw, among other things: the theft of compromising documents from secret service archives; the emergence of a controversial judge, Baltasar Garzón - the man who ordered the arrest of Pinochet in London - whose methods were sometimes described as unorthodox but whose tenacity and zeal were remarkable; the systematic obstruction of justice by the socialist government; divisions in public opinion, a large part of which either turned a blind eye or openly approved of Gal's operations; worrying symptoms of the judicialisation of politics and politicisation of the judiciary; and a former minister and deputy minister imprisoned on charges of organising state terrorism.

The opposition at that time - the centre-right Partido Popular - came to office in 1996 and changed its views, being inclined to close the book on the Gal episode, fearing that a thorough investigation of the dirty war could embarrass the army and the security forces. However, the "dirty war" against Eta is still being investigated by the Spanish judiciary today.

Woodworth's book is a valuable source for anyone interested in political violence and regional nationalisms although the details on the judicial process and the extensive cast of characters make it too long. The socialist accession to power in 1982 was supposed to mark the completion of the transition from dictatorship to democracy, but the Gal issue made the foundations of the system shake. Yet Woodworth draws the conclusion that, in spite of the dirty war against Eta, some of the institutions of Spanish democracy enjoy greater maturity as a result: "The commitment of the Spanish media and the Spanish judiciary to democratic values has been impressive. Western Europe's youngest democracy may actually be more mature in this respect than France, Germany or Britain." It is a promising note for a country that still seeks a solution to the Basque conflict. As with any other terrorist conflict, it has taken too many lives and has undermined the morale of the Spanish people and their faith in democracy.

Susana Fernandez Caro is a Spanish journalist.

Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy

Author - Paddy Woodworth
ISBN - 1 85918 6 3
Publisher - Cork University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 472

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