THERE wasn't much to laugh about last week, as decent people everywhere grieved for the bereaved and injured of Madrid, but the performance of Caoimhghin O Caolain, Sinn Fein leader in the South, did provide some comic relief.
Now you have to put yourself in O Caolain's shoes. The bombs had gone off, everyone believed Eta to be the perpetrators and around him in the Dail Michael Smith was speaking of "barbaric, horrendous bomb attacks", Enda Kenny of "an appalling terrorist atrocity" and Liz McManus of "our solidarity with Spain". O Caolain was stumped. There had not been time to get briefing from the Northern politburo, he had to say something and the situation was tricky - very, very tricky.
O Caolain - seen as a pompous plodder - is not much confided in by the Northern elite, but he does know it considers the Basques to be so yesterday: they don't even get a mention in Gerry Adams's latest volume of bowdlerised autobiography. Since 9/11, terrorists are bad news in Irish-America so New Sinn Fein is against them. The signals were clear only a fortnight ago at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis.
Yesteryear, the representatives of Eta's political wing, Herri Batasuna, were formally welcomed by Adams as "our friends from the Basque country". This time, although along with Palestinians and members of the ANC they were welcomed under the bland umbrella of "our international visitors", those singled out in his speech were the moneybags: "our Friends of Sinn Fein visitors from the United States, Australia and Canada".
To Adams, the Basques are a particular embarrassment since they got bored with peace processing and started killing people again: he is increasingly nervous of guilt by association.
Unfortunately for poor O Caolain, sweating in the Dail, the republican non-elite have failed to shake off socialism and revolution and all those ideas Adams and company now think so passe. Since they provide the bulk of the constituency workers in the south, O Caolain cannot afford to offend them, but they're seriously off-message. A young Northern Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O Broin, who is popular in the South, last year published an apologia for Eta/Herri Batasuna; the Basques were rapturously welcomed at the Ard Fheis by the rank-and-file; Ogra Shinn Fein's website is very big on its "fratenal [sic] links with many struggles throughout the world. We support the Basque peoples [sic] right to national self determination, and campaign against the illegal US blackade [sic] of Cuba"; and, probably for p.c. reasons, An Phoblacht had a fetching photograph of Pernando Barrena (a frequent Batasuna speaker at Ard Fheiseanna) and Esther Agirre beside a lady in African tribal dress.
It was hard for poor O Caolain, who has been active in the republican movement for decades. He will be well aware that what happened in Madrid was different only in scale from what the IRA did when the present elite were in charge: Bloody Friday 1972, for instance, when 20 bombs were let off in Belfast killing 10 and injuring 130, or Enniskillen in 1987 (11; 63), or the Shankill Fish shop (10; 57) in 1993. And of course, even amnesiacs have not forgotten the carnage created by the Real IRA, all ex-Provos, in Omagh in 1998.
O Caolain must also have some grasp of what close buddies have been Eta/HB and IRA/SF since Eta so helpfully provided handguns back in the early Seventies. A Basque political journalist, Gorka Landaburu, whom Eta mutilated in 2001 with a parcel bomb for the crime of criticising terrorism, spoke the following year of the close links. "Sinn Fein and Batasuna have a long-standing relationship. Numerous Basque leaders have lived in Ireland and Sinn Fein members come here." As for the "self-evident" links between Eta and the IRA, he cited as an example how when an Eta commando unit was arrested in France in 1999, it was involved in a gun-running operation from Eastern Europe for Eta and allegedly for the IRA. The Spanish police have frequently pointed out such similarity in tactics and weaponry between Eta and the IRA and think it inconceivable that they have not been swapping expertise.
So when it was O Caolain's turn, he rose, joined with other speakers in "expressing sympathy to the people of Madrid" and contributed his own inspired words: "While not knowing the details, whatever the reason or the causes, whoever was responsible should take note that there must be a better way."
Wow! That's telling the bombers.
New Gerry Adams, meanwhile, described the bombings as "an appalling act". He even went so far as to indulge in the politics of condemnation by describing it as "wrong".
Just about to set off to schmooze Irish-America for a week, he must be praying, like the rest of the elite, that Al-Qaeda carry the can for the horror in Madrid.