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Election dishes up a banquet for connoisseurs of irony

IN a time of crying contradictions in Irish life, several stand out more aggressively than others. The party that used to cling like little children to de Valera's 1937 constitution now proposes the most radical change in that document's history, one contemplating a formal separation of executive from the legislature.

The party of Cluskey, Corish and Spring -- usually reliable when it comes to nationalist reveries -- has bet the house on winning the election on the back of paranoid rhetoric that would have shamed Sean McEntee at the height of the tussle about land annuities in the Thirties.

Somewhere in their hearts they must know what Henry Adams (and Vanity Fair) knew, that in the end we must obey, and that the helpless show only their helplessness when they temper obedience with mockery.

And the party of Garret FitzGerald slowly returns to its Europhile meridian point, as evidenced by Michael Noonan's bravura performance on The Frontline, where he calmly walked the audience through various complex potential permutations on the "burden-sharing" issue.

There is a lot to ponder in all this.

Fianna Fail seeks an essentially American way out of our problem by decoupling the umbilical cord that binds Dail and Cabinet, an approach that gets high marks for imagination but one that will fail unless they insist on another Devlin Report for the civil service.

Labour has no room any longer for the kind of steady helmsmanship shown by Ruairi Quinn during his preparations for Irish membership of the euro after 1994.

And the only man who would appear to know the way home now is a former Minister for Health -- one who was roundly traduced for his capitulation to the lawyers in the Bridget McCole tragedy.

Connoisseurs of irony need not stop there, because Gerry Adams, of all people, is now running hard in the Louth constituency as the People's Champion, bugling to the faithful as they assemble the firewood needed for the bondholders' pyre.

Many elements of this particular scene jar, not the least of which is the crudity of the Provisional Sinn Fein economic analysis, based as it is on the kind of antique welfarist thinking that sounds eerily similar to the newspaper editorials itemised by Tom Garvin in his last book about the Fifties, News from a New Republic.

Adams's supposed solidarity with the working man also reeks somewhat of the same hypocrisy he deployed so brilliantly after 1998.

Having seen all the main PIRA arguments comprehensively defeated in negotiations -- they lost on self-determination, Articles 2 and 3 and power-sharing -- Adams acted as if he won handsomely. He is doing the same thing in Louth, posing as a gentle Samaritan who has come to a town near you to squeeze the bankers and the ECB securocrat-types until the pips squeak.

For those tempted to agree with Leo Varadkar's statement that the banks did more damage to Irish democracy than PIRA, a brief summary of Adams's working-class credentials might be in order. The first PIRA car bomb directed against the "colonial economic structure" in Northern Ireland was set off by Adams et al in 1971.

This killed six people, most of whom were bin men doing a day's labour. After the major setbacks sustained by PIRA following the Bloody Friday bombings, they turned their attention away from Belfast, and towards helpless rural farmers.

Then they focused on pubs in English cities, having decided that "national self-determination" was best achieved by firebombing afternoon drinkers in working class pubs in Birmingham and London.

After the so-called "Ulsterisation" of the security forces in Northern Ireland took effect in the Eighties, PIRA's campaign against the RUC and the UDR meant that Adams had essentially decided to declare open warfare on working-class Protestants.

When supplies were low, Adams then turned to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya after the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

And as Henry Patterson points out in his book, The Persistence of Conflict, Gerry Adams also expanded PIRA's target list at this point to include British Telecom engineers, caterers and building contractors.

Adams and co killed almost 60 per cent of the recorded victims in Northern Ireland, and that included over 70 children.

How then can we explain his dexterity and confidence, those magical traits that seemed to mesmerise Marie-Louise O'Donnell and other observers last week?

The answer probably lies in his bad conscience, a wilting flower for sure, but one that has to bother him on occasion when he looks back over his life.There are various achievements that one might privately invoke to excuse the obliteration of pensioners at Enniskillen or the maniacal firebombing of diners in La Mon.

Somehow, though, he must know that a cross-border committee on animal and plant health, water quality, waste management and fraud control doesn't quite justify the mayhem he caused.

So you just brazen it out and hope no one senses the shame you feel when the lights go out. Until that time, you just take a deep breath and pray that no one ever actually tries to implement your policies, that squalid populist platform that is only a promise to the ear to be broken at a time of his choosing, a mirage as maddening as a lavish bequest in a pauper's will.

John-Paul McCarthy holds a doctorate in Irish history from Oxford

Sunday Independent