It's not just in Scotland that a referendum over self-determination has caused a bit of a stooshie, not just in the region itself but in the wider locality. This weekend the people of the Basque country should have been bending their minds to two questions which would have gone a long way to determine their future relationship with Spain. Depending on the outcome, the answers would have decided the direction to be taken by the terrorist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Homeland and Freedom) which has been the main engine for violent political change.

Since it came into being in 1968, that extraordinary year of revolutions in Europe, more than 800 people have been killed in the course of its freedom struggle and as yesterday's bombings demonstrated, ETA is still a potent force. Despite a ceasefire agreed in December 2006 there have been sporadic attacks against government targets with seven assassinations including a car bomb at Madrid airport which killed two people.

But even before a vote was cast the referendum had run into trouble. A month ago the Spanish government gave it the thumbs down by employing the argument that the referendum was unconstitutional and that only the national government could authorise such a move. It was a strong hand and was made stronger by the fact that Spain's Constitutional Court ruled that any vote would be illegal and its findings non-binding. Although the decision was correct in the strictest legal sense it hardly reflected the will of the people - earlier in the month thousands of Basques demonstrated in the streets of Bilbao to show their solidarity with ETA and to demand a further degree of secession from Spain.

Briefly stated, the questions were: "Do you agree to supporting a process aimed at negotiating an end to the violence, if ETA previously declares unequivocally their will to end it once and for all?" and "Do you agree that the Basque political parties, without exception, start a process of negotiation to reach a democratic agreement about the Basque people's right of self-determination, and that the aforementioned agreement will be submitted to referendum before the end of 2010?"

Given the Basques' long absorption with the maintenance of their separate identity it's not surprising that the referendum was seen as a not-so-discreet push towards complete independence. How could it have been otherwise? Even the leader of the Basque Nationalist Party, President Juan Jose Ibarretxe, hoped that the vote would clear the air once and for all by bringing Basque aspirations into the open and, crucially, ending ETA's armed struggle. Here nomenclature is everything. Ibarretxe prefers to use the word "consultation", a terminology which suggests that he was determined to take his people with him on this question instead of dragging them behind him kicking and squealing. (It also brings to mind Alex Salmond's "national conversations", another notion that smacks of inclusiveness.) It sounded like an important moment in Basque and Spanish politics, it sounded as if it was about taking important decisions and on a fundamental level it was both of those things. Ibarretxe wanted to take the matter forward by sidelining ETA and thereby introducing a new finesse and maturity into the political debate. He was quite right to do so: the history of any struggle of this kind shows that force alone rarely decides the issue. Outcomes depend less on Kalashnikovs and Molotov cocktails and more on the white knuckles of seasoned politicians.

The matter goes beyond the Iberian peninsula. When the Balkan province of Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia earlier this year one of the dissenting European voices was Spain, whose foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, claimed that Pandora's Box was being opened in the Balkans and that it would be darned difficult to shut. Not only that, but he feared that the released troubles of the world would make their way across the Mediterranean to set up residence in Spain. It's easy to see why he didn't welcome the move: Spain is home to 17 regions which enjoy varying degrees of autonomy and the two loudest backers of Kosovan independence were those who support secession for the Basques and the Catalans.

Against that background, Spain made its position clear and, crucially, at the other extreme ETA was unlikely to pay any heed to the results of the voting. Unlike the IRA, which renounced violence at the Good Friday agreement in 1998, ETA has remained inflexible about taking part in any dialogue. However, its outlawed political wing, Batasuna, has started claiming that continuing violence is an obstacle to any dialogue. Make no mistake, despite the Spanish jurisdiction which banned the referendum, the Basque question remains a conundrum: if the answer to the second question had been yes, then the response to the first could hardly be no.