Football has a role to play in politics and peace


"I look at Adams and I just know he has leadership qualities." The commentator on television last night was not describing the Sinn Fein president, but Tony Adams, the captain of the English soccer team, who last night just may have done his bit to save the peace process. Although his team lost to Germany, England's creditable performance in Euro 96 seems to have improved the mood in Britain in a way which could yet have important political implications.

You think I jest? Gentle reader, I have never been more serious. The persistent buzz in the corridors of Westminster on these sunny June days is that John Major will call an autumn election, probably in November after the Tory Party conference. His party is running 20 points behind Labour in the polls, but the arguments for going to the country early are still persuasive.

The most obvious is the weak and vulnerable state of his government. Mr Major's parliamentary majority is down to one and he faces the possibility of more defections, not to mention the deaths of Tory MPs. The Beef War has been resolved, and the outcome has left the party as united as it is ever likely to be on Europe. Why risk more rows and sniping in the months ahead?

On the economic front the prospects are reasonably pleasing. Unemployment and interest rates are down, consumer spending and house prices up. Again, the argument is for an early election.

As important as any of these to the "feelgood factor" has been the way the English soccer team has come back from the humiliations of the recent past to surprise and delight the fans by their performance in Euro 96. It seems to be generally agreed that people are more relaxed, more at ease with themselves as a result.

Pictures of Bobby Moore accepting the World Cup in 1966 are shown over and over again on television. The political fallout, then as now, favours the ruling party. It is still part of British political folklore that England's victory over Germany in 1966 helped Harold Wilson to win the general election of that year, despite the fact that the election was held in March and the World Cup contest was not until June.

An early general election in Britain would be the best thing that could happen for Northern Ireland. At the very least, it would remove an exhausted and demoralised government and a Prime Minister who, whatever his initial commitment to the search for peace, has become increasingly preoccupied with the problems of his own party.

This is not to suggest that a Tory defeat would be inevitable. John Major, derided and written off as a political liability, has snatched victory from the jaws of electoral defeat before this. But the present British government, lurching from crisis to crisis, is trusted by nobody in Northern Ireland. For it to be replaced by a strong and stable administration, whether Conservative or Labour, would have to be a change for the better.

A FEW weeks ago, just before the poll in Northern Ireland, I wrote here of a growing impression in Dublin that John Major, beset by troubles on all sides, had virtually disengaged from any personal involvement in the peace process.

It was, according to official sources, increasingly difficult to see how there could be any significant progress this side of an election. The challenge which seemed, even at that time, to face the Irish Government was to create a credible strategy to steady the situation. Above all, it was important to help Gerry Adams convince the IRA to stay its hand so that a more promising political environment could be created. The assessment seemed bleak at the time, but in the last three weeks the situation has deteriorated even more swiftly and dangerously than we could have foreseen. The murder of Garda Jerry McCabe, the devastating effects of the Manchester bomb, the discovery of a "bomb factory" where deadly weapons were apparently being assembled for immediate use all these have given rise to fears that the peace process is effectively over.

They have also made it much more difficult for other politicians as well as ordinary people to trust Sinn Fein. Is there any point in continuing to deal with Gerry Adams since he appears to have lost the power struggle within the republican movement?

In a situation so fraught with danger it becomes even more important for politicians to hold firm to a practical belief that dialogue and debate can triumph over the terrible swift arguments of violence. They might also reflect that political power struggles, even within wholly constitutional parties, are rarely resolved in a matter of weeks or months. Demands for condemnation may be satisfying for those who speak from the security of the moral high ground, but they are rarely helpful to those directly involved in trying to change the course of history.

IT is obvious, as the Taoiseach himself has said, that a debate is going on within the broad republican movement between those who argue that the only effective way to advance their objectives is through violence (or a combination of violence with politics) and those - who, like Adams, believe that a lasting, peaceful settlement can only be achieved through negotiation.

At the moment it seems, at least to outsiders, that Adams must be losing the argument. But, by a tragic irony, the terrible events of recent weeks may strengthen his hand. There is widespread anger within the republican movement, particularly over the murder of Garda McCabe.

It is accepted that, sooner or later, there will have to be political negotiations. But, republican sources say over and over again, there must be confidence that these take place on a level playing pitch, that there is no attempt by the British government to tilt them in favour of the unionists.

This may well enrage Irish politicians and officials who have worked so hard to ensure that all Sinn Fein's demands in regard to the negotiations are met, but this failure of confidence in the good faith of the British government is still very real in the eyes of most republicans, even those most inclined to political methods.

At the moment what is most urgently needed now is a commitment to building trust on all sides. That applies most dramatically to the IRA and Sinn Fein, who must realise the terrible damage that has been done to public confidence by recent events.

But other parties also have a duty in this regard. A British election, coming sooner rather than later, will help to alleviate some of the most deep seated causes of mistrust. For a start a new government is unlikely to be politically dependent on the votes of Ulster Unionist MPs, a fact of political life which has led very many Irish nationalists to suspect that John Major's handling of the peace process has been unduly influenced by concern for his parliamentary majority.

So, let's hear it for Gazza and the lads. In times to come we may look back and remember how they helped to save the peace process.