Does a symbiotic relationship suit the DUP and Sinn Féin?

Symbiosis – A symbiotic relationship more or less means a mutually beneficial relationship between different species or groups.

You will have seen examples of this on nature programs with birds such as oxpeckers perched on the backs of large grazing mammals such as wildebeest, rhinos and zebras. The grazing animals tolerate the birds because they eat parasites on the mammal’s body, including ticks and blood-sucking flies. The zebra or wildebeast have annoying parasites removed while the birds get an easy meal.

Similarly, clownfish live happily with Sea Anemones despite the anemone’s neurotoxin filled stinging tentacles.  The clownfish is immune and can safely nestle into the anemone’s tentacles to hide from predators, while the clownfish keep the anemones free from parasites and provide them with nutrients through their faeces.

Symbiotic relationships are not restricted to animals, they exist within our own political process, to the cost of all of us.

The DUP and Sinn Fein advertise themselves as being each other’s enemies but time and time again, they have helped each other to electoral success. The DUP and Sinn Fein rely on each other to act as the ‘bogeymen’ used to scare the electorate, motivating supporters to vote to keep the other side out.

Sunningdale 1974

Most nationalists will be aware of the role of Ian Paisley’s DUP in destroying the Sunningdale power-sharing Assembly in 1974 with the help of the Loyalist paramilitaries and will make the flawed assumption that Republicans back then wanted power-sharing to work. Eamon McCann’s book, War and an Irish Town (p141, 142) reminds us that if the IRA had heeded calls to stop bombing to allow the peace settlement to take hold ‘almost all support in the ghettoes would have flowed rapidly to the SDLP’ and that as a consequence the IRA blithely blasted on ‘strained their resources and manpower to the limit’ in an all-out bombing offensive. Just as Paisley did not want the UUP to benefit from the Sunningdale Power-sharing deal, Republicans did not want the SDLP to take power in the Sunningdale executive because at that time the Sinn Fein election machine was not ready.

Smash Sinn Féin

In 1985 when Sinn Fein first contested council election the DUP adopted the election slogan ‘Smash Sinn Fein’. This slogan benefitted both Sinn Fein and the DUP. The slogan encouraged a nationalist reaction with more votes to Sinn Fein with hard-line unionists mistakenly believing more votes for the DUP weakened Sinn Fein. In subsequent elections, as Sinn Fein grew, they provided the DUP with a welcome bogeyman to motivate scared unionists.

NI Assembly and the Good Friday Agreement

When the NI Assembly was set up in 1998 it seemed like a win for everyone, but the SDLP and UUP did well in the elections, with David Trimble as First Minister and Seamus Mallon as Deputy-FM. The DUP opposed the whole process, refusing to appoint permanent ministers in an executive beside Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Even though they knew that David Trimble’s grip on power was tenuous, the IRA part of the republican movement delayed decommissioning, only agreeing to a decommissioning process in late 2001 after they had forced David Trimble’s resignation as First Minister. As a result, by 2003 the DUP became the largest unionist party and Sinn Fein the largest nationalist party.

The resultant partnership between Ian Paisley of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein was a perfect example of how the symbiotic relationship suited the DUP and Sinn Fein, allowing them to push the SDLP and the UUP into the background.

2023 Elections

The DUP decision to crash the assembly preventing Michelle O’Neill from taking up the First Minister post has energised the nationalist vote so much that for the first time ever, the nationalist vote was greater than the unionist vote. This was damaging to unionism but not to the DUP who kept all their seats. The symbiotic relationship still works for the DUP and Sinn Fein, allowing them to crush their rivals in the SDLP and UUP.

2024 Westminster Election

Already we hear growing talk of ‘unionist unity’. The idea that only one party from each side of the constitutional divide is needed, is gaining support. Sinn Fein and the DUP will champion the issue of a border poll vs the union; they will pay lip-service to issues such as the economy and the NHS, but secretly hope to banish their rivals with the constitutional question.

Almost every constituency will be portrayed as a Sinn Fein/DUP battleground, placing immense pressure on the SDLP and UUP to stand aside, even though this denies voter choice.

Will NI forever be locked in this DUP/SF symbiotic pantomime, or will the need for the democratic centre ground of SDLP, Alliance and UUP be recognised?


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