British Election a High Stakes Game for Three Party Leaders in the North

BELFAST - While the party leaders who have the most at stake in this month's British election are named Brown, Cameron, and Clegg, the leaders of three of Northern Ireland's four main political parties also have a lot riding on the outcome of the Westminster vote.

On the surface, a British parliamentary election does not mean as much in Northern Ireland as it once did. With the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running and with most governmental power now in the hands of Assembly ministers, much of the action has moved from London to Belfast.

"Westminster matters less," notes Queen's University Belfast politics professor Paul Bew. "It matters, but just not as much as it used to."

But in a place where politics is closely watched and where political leaders take on the significance of tribal chieftains, three leaders - Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionist Party, and Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party - will have their own performances and the performances of their parties parsed and measured.

As the Westminster election took shape, Adams, Empey, and Robinson were buffeted by controversy and were dealing with burgeoning crises.

Adams was still feeling the effects of Sinn Fein's poor electoral showing in the Republic of Ireland last year, the child-abuse charges lodged against his brother, Liam Adams, and, most recently, was on the defensive after a book charged that he was directly involved in Irish Republican Army acts of violence.

Robinson, Northern Ireland's first minister and the political successor to Ian Paisley, was dealing with stark marital issues and charges of cozy business dealings with a local developer.

Empey's issues were less personal, but his effort to bring the once-proud Ulster Unionist Party out of the political wilderness seemed to be foundering. Some members of his party objected to his decision to form a political alliance with Britain's Conservative Party. The UUP's only MP, Sylvia Hermon, left the party and was running as an independent because of her unwillingness to be tied to the Tories.

The party leader with the least on the line was the Social Democratic and Labor Party's new chief, Margaret Ritchie.

Northern Ireland sends 18 MPs to Britain's 650-seat House of Commons. Going into the election, the DUP held half of the seats, Sinn Fein was the leading nationalist party with five seats, followed by the SDLP with three, and the UUP with one.

Among the key issues to watch:

Will the current ten unionist/eight nationalist seat balance of power change? Unionists could pick up two additional seats, while nationalists could add a ninth seat but probably will be fortunate to hold serve.

Will Adams continue to be a political colossus in his West Belfast constituency, where he won 70 percent and 66 percent of the vote in the last two Westminster elections? And will Sinn Fein hold its five seats? One of those seats appears to be in jeopardy because of a unionist alliance in Fermanagh-South Tyrone.

Will the DUP be able to maintain its nine seats and will Peter Robinson's vote ebb in his East Belfast constituency?

Will the UUP be able to claim a single seat and did the party's alliance with the Conservatives turn into a complete disaster when Tory leader David Cameron said Britain must reduce spending in the North?

Bew, a longtime observer of Northern Ireland's politics, said there is no chance that Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, will lose his West Belfast seat. "The West Belfast investment in Sinn Fein and in the personality of Adams is so great, it's not possible to unhook now," he noted.

Still, Adams is feeling a heightened level of political pressure and is being importuned to be more candid about his connections to the IRA. Adams denies ever having served in the paramilitary organization but those denials are treated with skepticism by virtually everyone in the North. Many say that Adams was a top commander and helped to direct the IRA's campaign of violence.

Last month, speaking at the annual Easter Rising commemoration in Belfast's Milltown Cemetery, Adams equated attacks against him to an assault on the republican ideal of a united Ireland.

"And let no one think that I will bend to the demands of anti-republican elements or their allies in a hostile section of the media," Adams said, as he spoke near the graves of the IRA's hunger-strikers and military heroes."This is bigger than me. This is about us as a republican community," he added.

As is always the case, elections are about many things, including what role, if any, the North's parties will play if the election writ large produces a "hung parliament," with none of the three major parties in Britain achieving a majority in the House of Commons and thus needing to cobble together that rara avis in British politics: a coalition government.

No matter where the location, politics is a rough and fascinating sport, and it is all that and more in the tiny but intense corner of the world that is Northern Ireland.