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Explainer: Why has a controversy blown up around political party members posing as pollsters?

Some parties have said they never engaged in this practice, while others used it up until a few years ago.

Image: Shutterstock/The Toidi

Updated Thu 3:10 PM

IT WAS FIRST reported yesterday that Sinn Féin party members had pretended to be pollsters to conduct election surveys. 

Information continued to trickle out during the day until Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party all admitted they had conducted similar practice at one point or another. 

The practice appears to have been relatively well-known within political circles before now, being described as “widespread and common” by Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin.

Speaking to The Journal, professor of politics at Dublin City University Gary Murphy described the practice of party members pretending to be from a fake polling company as “outrageous” and “dubious”. 

“Obviously parties have been engaging in polling in constituencies for years without using polling companies, I kind of knew that practice was in place. But I had assumed, maybe naively, that when a party was seeking data from voters on constituency opinions they were upfront about who they were,” Murphy said. 

He said the narrative that most parties engaged in the act doesn’t “excuse the duplicitous” nature of the practice. 

Data protection 

If the data was kept anonymous and doesn’t contain any personal details, it shouldn’t raise issues in terms of data protection. 

It is understood the Data Protection Commission will be dealing with the matter through its ongoing audit of each political party.

Any potential personal data gathered and processed by the parties through these polls will be examined as part of this audit.

The data protection audit announced last month will “inquire into the processing of personal data since 25 May, 2018″ by each party acting as a data controller.

Here’s what some parties had to say about the practice since the news first broke yesterday. 

Sinn Féin

The Irish Independent first reported that Sinn Féin provided party members with instructions on how to present as pollsters in order to conduct election surveys as part of a 2015 “election toolkit”.  

TD Eoin Ó Broin defended what he termed “informal polling”, saying it was “widespread and common practice”.  

Ó Broin said he didn’t accept an accusation that the practice was deceptive, instead saying it was a way for “small” parties to conduct anonymised polls without paying for professional companies. 

“Informal polling by political parties, particularly larger political parties, has been going on for years and when we started doing this back in 2010, we would have been a very small party, limited resources,” he said on Newstalk’s The Pat Kenny Show.

Speaking to RTÉ radio’s News at One in the afternoon, Ó Broin said members would have been supplied with badges featuring their real names, a picture and “the name of a marketing research company” when conducting the polls.

Fianna Fáil

Micheál Martin said party members “were used to supplement polling companies who oversaw polling exercises before 2007″.

Martin said his party didn’t use fake identity badges, as was the case with Sinn Féin.

He said Fianna Fáil now uses professional polling companies.

“I don’t know if it broke the law, no data was record, I’ve been assured no personal data in relation to the people at the door, you know, was taken or recorded,” Martin said.

Before the news broke that other parties had engaged in the practice, Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry tweeted that “an examination of these matters must be carried out by Gardai into the legality of misrepresentation”.

“If it is not against the law it should be,” he said. 

Fine Gael

Leo Varadkar said yesterday afternoon that his party had not undertaken this practice since 2016, but said he couldn’t “swear blind about local arrangements that may have been done in the past”. 

Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Drivetime that evening, he said acklowdged that members from his party had previously engaged in the practices described. 

“Quite frankly yes, this isn’t something that we’ve done since 2016 or even before that, but certainly prior to that, we would have done something similar,” he said.

Either volunteers would have been asked to do surveys door to door or students would have been paid to do it and it would have been done on a similar basis, anonymised, for the purposes of polling. But like I say that practice has been discontinued.

Varadkar said he has been “trying to check” when the practice stopped and that it hasn’t happened “in the last 5,6,7 years”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said today that people would have worked while “not representing themselves as being from Fine Gael” in his constituency. 

The TD said there is “nothing sinister here”.

Coveney said that the practice hasn’t been carried out in his party in the past “six or seven years” and it was discontinued because “it became clear it wasn’t the professional way to do things”. 

He said he personally hadn’t participated in the practice but that “I don’t think it would have been uncommon.”

Yesterday, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris described the practice as “a bit sinister”.

He said party politicians pretending to be from a fake polling company raised “genuinely legitimate” issues about the data gathered. 

Green Party

In a statement the Green Party confirmed it had engaged in the practice but that it has since been discontinued. 

“When we initially asked around internally yesterday it appeared that no-one in the party had ever engaged in using volunteers to carry out polling using a false company name,” a party statement said.

“However, it later emerged that there may have been some isolated incidences of this taking place in some constituencies over a decade ago. To be clear, this is not something that the present day party approves of or would ever engage in.”

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Labour Party

Party leader Alan Kelly said yesterday that the practice is “absolutely not” something that has occurred in his party. 

The party has been contacted for a statement.

Aontú

Aontú has been contacted for comment. 

People Before Profit

When asked if party members had ever engaged in anonymous polling in a similar manner to other political parties, a spokesperson said: “PBP party members have never done that.”

Social Democrats

A spokesperson said: “The Social Democrats have never engaged in posing as independent market researchers or opinion poll companies to survey voters.”

Renua 

Fine Gael Dublin Bay South by-election candidate James Geoghegan said he surveyed “perhaps 50 people” on behalf of then-Renua TD Lucinda Creighton in 2016. He said people at their doors “didn’t ask” who he was representing. 

He told reporters today: “We would have carried out a poll as volunteers, we would have knocked at the doors, it was just a head to head poll about the standing in the race. You ask people, nobody ever asked me personally when I did it who are you representing, if anyone had asked I would not have misrepresented my position but nobody ever asked.” 

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