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Irish politics explained through Game of Thrones

Just like securing thrones in the HBO series, Irish elections are more about fending off contenders than truly winning popular support.

Roslyn Fuller

AS HBO’S Game of Thrones kicks into production for a monumental sixth season, so, too, are Irish politicians girding their loins for an epic battle.

In fact, the parallels between the famous drama series and Irish politics are striking. Our very own realm here in Game of Potatoes was also once ruled by an untouchable dynasty that disintegrated under a Mad King (enter Bertie Ahern). He was quickly replaced by a less noble leader, known mainly for his ability to put back strong drink, but he too, soon exited the scene, leaving a kingdom in disarray.

Battle for power

Now Enda perches precariously at the pinnacle of Game of Potatoes – a less disturbing leader than his GoT counterpart, to be sure, but nonetheless a man who’s bound to be handed a poisoned chalice at some point. And he has his hands full, because in recent times, rivals have sprouted like weeds.

Who will sit next on the Tater Throne? The group of once scorned misfits from the North who are handy with a sword and who, in time of crisis, suddenly rise to prominence? The rigid moralist who follows the Lord of Light under the guidance of the mysterious Red Priestess? Sinn Fein would be shoo-ins for the former role, and I can definitely see Lucinda Creighton and Eddie Hobbs in the latter two.

If I could round things out with Stephen Donnelly as a slimmer Varys and Micheál Martin as undeterred leader-in-exile Daenerys, my heart would be content. Labour admittedly presents some difficulties. They started off as Starks – good intentions coupled with a pathological ineptitude for high politics – but have since gone full Greyjoy, thundering, “have you paid the water charges?” at every opportunity.

In Game of Potatoes, new players enter the field of battle every week, and by the time the general election rolls around, the common folk are going to have a lot to choose from.
And that comes with its own ups and downs.

Public opinion

Just like securing thrones, elections are more about fending off contenders than truly winning popular support. In fact, a general stream of thought can actually be harmed by becoming too popular.

Take GoT: it’s safe to say that from the very beginning, there was a clear shift of opinion away from King Joffrey. But since his opponents were all anti-Joffrey in their own little way, there was a surprisingly long-term continuation of said Joffrey.

Similarly, in Game of Potatoes, public opinion has shifted rapidly away from the right over the last four years, with movements like People before Profit, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, and a clutch of left-wing Independents joining more established parties like Labour, Sinn Fein and the Greens. The general “left” is polling around 57% compared to 43% for more right and centrist parties.

Coalition politics

But it is its very diversity that is going to hurt it come election time. That’s because it is entirely possible for a country to shift left and wind up governed from the right as a result.

Take the 2005 German elections: together the SPD (centre-left), the PDS (somewhat further left) and the Greens won more votes than the CDU/CSU and FDP (centre right and libertarian parties). Yet the SPD and PDS refused to form a coalition, and so, although most Germans voted some variety of left, it’s been Madame Merkel ever since.

The same problem has long-afflicted Canada where a vote-split between the centre-left Liberals and further-left NDP has produced a series of minority and bare majority Conservative governments for a decade, despite the fact that the left generally garners nearly 50% more votes than the right does.

The obvious solution to split votes is to rally round the “unite the left” battle cry. It’s a tempting argument and one we’ve all considered from time to time. But fortunately, here in Game of Potatoes, the goal is not to achieve an absolute monarchy, but rather a representative democracy.

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And representatives are not only supposed to represent their constituents’ actual views, they’re also supposed to really debate with each other in the Dáil. Compelling an unnatural level of agreement on policies before the day of election is one way to deal with a split vote, but it also cuts short any constructive dialogue between representatives and the public as events unfold.

Rewarding failure

Instead of transparent debate and a flexible political system, we end up with position statements, often read to an almost empty chamber, and a rigid whip, which essentially rewards backbenchers for their continued failure to think for themselves. Not only do many good ideas never see the light of day, parties lose capable candidates, as many people are too attached to their own ideas to permanently and publicly forswear them.

Game of Thrones may be full of zealous followers, willing to swear fealty to the next lord who comes along for a crust of bread, but, as the series so amply demonstrates, short-term thinking never leads to long-term solutions. If Game of Potatoes is to do better, we also need to do things differently.

We need a more flexible structure, one where the danger of a split vote doesn’t immediately entail that some streams of thought are banished from real-life politics back to the Ivory Tower. To ensure our democracy does not have to choose between a rock and a hard place – between being run by a government the majority did not vote for or a coalition of pre-election compromise – we need to seriously rethink our entire political system.

Dr Roslyn Fuller is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose, and an independent general election candidate for Dublin Fingal.

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Roslyn Fuller

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