British Elections Loom Crucial to Peace in Northern Ireland

The results of the upcoming British Parliamentary elections will have a profound effect upon peace and understanding amongst the conflicted people of Northern Ireland. The people of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will elect 650 members of the newly constituted Parliament, which will rule the country for the next five years unless the new government fails to maintain its majority.

Each member will be paid approximately $100,000 plus additional expenses for travel, lodging, and constituent services. For most members and prospective members of Parliament, however, it is the power, the prestige, and the letters MP after their names that are the prime motivators.

In the British system, the winning political party must achieve at least 51 percent of the delegates to take power and be asked by the Queen to elect a prime minister who will run the country. In this election, then, the successful party must win 326 delegates. That is unlikely this time and many are predicting a "hung parliament" necessitating agreements and compromises among competing parties before a new government can be formed.

Northern Ireland will elect 18 members of the new government. None of these delegates is likely to have much impact on the Parliament. Sinn Fein, for instance, refuses to pledge allegiance to the Queen and therefore its five current delegates have not been seated. When John Hume and Ian Paisley were MPs, they were influential. But today, except for Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, no one from Northern Ireland has much recognition.

On the other hand, the Parliament and its leader, the prime minister, have nearly complete control over what happens in Northern Ireland.

With all the talk about devolved government and the Northern Ireland Assembly being responsible for its people, it should be remembered that the British Army is still in the North, that all its foreign affairs are controlled out of London, and that the police intelligence operation called MI5 is still active and in control with a brand-new building and its agents and informers reporting back to London.

Make no mistake: the Northern Ireland Assembly exists at the pleasure of the British Parliament.

Serious problems still exist in the North. Its economy is sustained by government spending. Some 40 percent of the working people are employed by the government. And new business is simply not attracted to civic unrest.

Two sizeable bombs exploded in Northern Ireland last month. One targeted a South Armagh police station, the other exploded outside the new intelligence-gathering building. Though only a few were injured, it is clear that not all is well.

A very small breakaway group of former IRA fighters, who call themselves "The Real IRA" and are labeled "dissidents" by the media, have been blamed for the attacks.

The new head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Chief Constable Matt Baggott, said recently that the threat of increased violence is growing every day.

The 30-foot to 36-foot high concrete and steel walls separating Catholic and Protestant communities and neighborhoods seem to grow every year. Euphemistically referred to as "Peace Walls," these tragic reminders of simmering hatred actually divide people, creating more and more distrust on either side. There will not be true understanding and confidence in Northern Ireland until these walls are gone.

Unfortunately, the fear on both sides of the walls is so deep that people want them to stay. They want to sleep nights.

This is a troubled society that requires careful attention, understanding, and support.

But the leader of the Conservative Party in London, David Cameron, in a campaign interview as part of his appeal for votes, called for cuts in what the British government spends in Northern Ireland. Apparently he feels that such a position will gain him approval from the voters. What obviously counts is his election to prime minister, and not what might be helpful to the people of Northern Ireland.

This year, for the first time, the three leaders of the major parties held American-style television debates. According to newspaper polls and all the experts, there was a clear winner. Nick Clegg, leader of the smaller Liberal Democrats, trounced his two rivals, Cameron and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, leader of the Labor Party currently in power. There is no telling from this distance the effect on voting that Clegg's success will have, but this may the most interesting British election in many years.

Television debates were also used for the first time in Northern Ireland, but there was no distinct winner. Political positions are too well known in Northern Ireland for there to be surprises. A debate is not going to change a Unionist vote to a Nationalist vote. The contest is between the Sinn Fein and SDLP for the National vote and between the DUP and the former UUP for the Unionist vote.

In a controversial development, Sir Reg Empy, the leader of the UUP, David Trimble's old party, has formed an alliance with Cameron's Conservatives and named the new party the Ulster Conservative Unionist Party (UCU). The UCU is running candidates in all but one of the 18 constituencies.

In the last British Parliamentary election five years ago, Ian Paisley's DUP elected 9 MPs, Sinn Fein 5, SDLP 3, and the UUP 1. This year three former MPs are not running, Edward McGrady of the SDLP, Paisley of the DUP, and Iris Robinson of the DUP.

Margaret Ritchie, the new leader of the SDLP, will probably replace McGrady, Ian Paisley's son should replace him, and Iris Robinson will probably be succeeded by James Shannon, another DUP politician. One of the Sinn Fein seats may be in jeopardy where Michelle Gildernow is facing a Unionist consensus candidate, Rodney Connor. Alasdair McDonnell of the SDLP is also facing a difficult re-election bid.

Both national parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, constantly remind voters that they are resolutely for a United Ireland and the Unionist parties are aggressively defending their allegiance to the United Kingdom.

Though this will be an interesting election in Northern Ireland itself, the real impact for its people will come from the results in England, Scotland, and Wales.