Agirre’s pedigree in the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) was practically aristocratic. When Spain’s Basque region first won autonomy under the Second Republic, his uncle, José Antonio Agirre Lekube, became its premier. After the civil war, his father, Juan Mari, represented the Basque government-in-exile in Belgium. His mother, María Teresa Arizmendi Ayestaran, who died recently, had fled into exile after her father was executed by advancing Francoist rebels in 1936; and his wife, Usune, was a daughter of Luis María Retolaza, another historic PNV figure who served the restored regional government as interior minister.
Agirre was born in Antwerp and graduated in economics from Louvain University. In the twilight years of the Franco regime, he moved to St-Jean-de-Luz in southern France to manage Axular, a commercial print shop that fronted the underground PNV’s propaganda press and regularly smuggled literature and people across the border.
His years in Belgium and France acquainted him with many of the more radical elements in the Basque diaspora, giving him an intimate knowledge of its underground machinations. His social circle included veteran refugees of the nationalist community alongside young activists on the guerrilla fringe.
ETA had its origins within the PNV’s own youth movement in 1959. For five decades, there has remained some ambivalence between mainstream democratic nationalism and its violent offspring, given the latter’s repudiation of autonomy within Spain in favour of a separate Basque state straddling the French border and swallowing neighbouring Navarra.
Agirre’s expert knowledge of the evolution of the separatist fringe surpassed that of Spain’s secret services and even, as his colleague Senator Iñaki Anasagasti observed, that of ETA’s own current leadership. It was reflected in his journalism, under the nom-de-plume “J. Txindoki”, chosen pointedly: Txindoki was the nickname of Joseba Goikoetxea, a long-term PNV activist who, as a sergeant-major in the new Basque police service, the Ertzaintza, was murdered by ETA in 1993. Two other officers in the (PNV-dominated) Ertzaintza, Montxo Doral and Genaro García de Andoain, were also close to Agirre and lost their lives in ETA attacks.
Such tragedies strengthened Agirre’s resolve to steer the separatists away from armed struggle into peaceful politics. He exploited his contacts with ETA leaders from the 1970s up to the 1990s and harvested whispers of intelligence from the PNV’s grassroots. Foreign journalists and diplomats looked to Agirre for a reliable steer on ETA’s current state of play.
Two years after Franco’s 1975 death, Agirre settled his family in Bilbao (not least because of his passion for the city’s football club, Athletic). He created a trust named after Sabino Arana, the xenophobe who founded the PNV in 1894, to raise funds for a head office building on the site of Arana’s birthplace.
Agirre helped set up secret meetings between ETA emissaries and the party leadership as early as 1980, failing to persuade the militants to endorse the newly-won autonomy statute. In 1988, Agirre formally joined the PNV’s executive, on which he remained until last year, under the leadership of both the long-serving Xabier Arzallus – with whom Agirre was closely identified – and his young rival, Josu Jon Imaz. His fluency in several languages helped his work as the party’s head of international relations, in which role he travelled widely – for example, attending a Plaid Cymru conference, observing Norwegian mediation efforts in Palestine or meeting protagonists in the Northern Ireland peace process. He was a delegate to the Christian Democratic International, of which the PNV was a founder member in 1961, until ousted by the pan-Spanish conservatives of the People’s Party (PP).
Following a 1992 French police raid that left ETA severely weakened, the PNV held exploratory talks with ETA’s then political front, Herri Batasuna (HB), but the latter’s refusal to disown the armed struggle created an impasse. Agirre was one of three PNV interlocutors in these talks and a later series of meetings with both ETA and HB, yielding an ETA ceasefire in 1998 based on the so-called pact of Lizarra. Broadly, the deal was that the PNV would accentuate its thrust towards sovereign independence and ETA would tone down its terrorism.
In the late 1990s, Agirre met a key figure in the Ulster peace process: Alec Reid, reputedly personal chaplain to Gerry Adams. Fr Reid had a keen interest in the Basque conflict and, with Agirre’s help, made repeated efforts to foster a nationalist front, to negotiate with Madrid towards a referendum on Basque self-determination in the absence of violence.
Spanish police were investigating the payment of protection money that ETA calls its “revolutionary taxes” when, in 2006, they covertly filmed Agirre visiting a bar in Irún, where they believed the extortion racket was based. The police specifically claimed he had a role in the handover of €54,000 to ETA from two threatened businessmen and that he had collected fresh extortion letters from the bar. His defence maintained that he merely picked up information on whether the terrorists might drop their “revolutionary tax” campaign to facilitate contacts with the Spanish government. Charged with complicity in extortion, he was released on bail of €30,000. The charges were finally dropped in May 2008 by the campaigning magistrate Baltasar Garzón, with a distinct whiff of politics lingering over the whole botched prosecution.
Agirre insisted that his dealings with ETA and its acolytes were entirely about monitoring its strategic thinking, never stooping to act as a broker for what he denounced as blackmail. Agirre made a distinction between what he called “ETA zaharra”, the old ETA that fought Franco’s dictatorship, and its current namesake, capable of targeting democrats of every stripe, including the PNV itself. The climate of fear meant that separatists who deplored terrorism tended to remain silent, which in Agirre’s view made them “passive accomplices”. He could be fearlessly trenchant in his public denunciations of terrorism; at the same time, his reputation for impeccable discretion and personal integrity gave him a unique role as a line of communication between parties to the Basque conflict.
His death came at an awkward time for both the democratic and the violent expressions of Basque nationalism. Recent elections left the PNV unable, for the first time, to form a new government in the autonomous region, losing to an unprecedented coalition of socialists and conservatives. ETA meanwhile appears on its last legs, with more than half of its 750 imprisoned members favouring a permanent renunciation of violence. If Agirre’s long-running intermediary role contributed to this profound shift, perhaps he disproved Enoch Powell’s aphorism that all political careers end in failure.
He is survived by Usune, their daughter Usoa and sons Jon and Joseba, and by his four brothers.
- Gorka Agirre Azurmendi, politician, born 16 March 1949; died 20 March 2009