When Martin McGuinness, one of the former leaders of the IRA, became minister of education in the first inter-party government of Northern Ireland, the Protestant community could hardly bear the idea that he would be in charge of the schools in which their own children were studying. But he soon succeeded in pushing through the province's first autonomous budget, which provided for the reorganization and renovations of dozens of schools formerly starved of funds. The measure went down well with the voters.
We know all too well that to suggest any parallels between the Irish conflict and the Basque one is a risky endeavor. We know that the toll of Irish deaths, both Catholic and Protestant, and of people in prison, dwarfs the analogous statistics in the Spanish case.
We know all this, yet the conflict in Northern Ireland has never ceased to be the mirror in which ETA and the abertzales (the Basque separatist left) found a model with which to compare themselves, in their violent and less violent aspects. And Spanish society, and the Spanish government, regarded the Ulster peace process with a healthy envy.
We still do. Fourteen years have gone by since the two parties of Northern Ireland, Catholic and Protestant, signed a peace agreement - which, I can assure you, was watched and greeted with more enthusiasm, and got a better press, in Spain than in the British Isles. In those days, between 1998 and 2000, the devolution of autonomy to Northern Ireland was not accompanied by any solemn public statements, or televised ceremonies, or even handshakes. The new governors of the region, who until then had been sworn enemies, simply started walking the same road together shoulder to shoulder, each keeping a watchful eye on the other, in the best of cases.
The press, both British and Irish, focused almost exclusively on the stumbling blocks, the spokes stuck in the wheel, everything that was lacking if the peace was to be a real one.
The media in London highlighted the recurring incidents at night in Belfast, in which young Catholics went on attacking British armored cars, the new graffiti that disfigured the walls in the newly peaceful city, and the slow pace of IRA disarmament.
And the Irish media underlined the aggressive language still being used by leaders such as Ian Paisley, the radical Protestant preacher who took several years more before finally adding his voice to those favoring peace and compromise, and the slow pace of British demilitarization.
Peace seemed precarious, and likely to run off the rails at any moment. The first requests for pardons on the part of prisoners were not publicized, and the first encounters between killers and the relatives of their victims were still years from being held and coming to light.
But peace, it has been said to surfeit, is something that is made between enemies. Wednesday's handshake between Martin McGuinness and the Queen of England now emerges as another corner of the mirror in which we may try to imagine possible events in Spain.
Can we imagine such a cordial handshake happening between a former member of ETA who had become a member of a Basque regional government, and the King of Spain? To propose parallels is a very slippery business, and the abertzale subculture has never had a strong central leadership, such as that represented by McGuinness and Gerry Adams, to draw with it the whole armed organization into the camp of peace. Here in Spain, all these things are more difficult to imagine, but the first steps have undeniably been taken, and after all, what are 14 years? In history, they are only a few minutes.