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Leo Varadkar says FG paid students to pretend to be pollsters, DPC to ask SF about its practices

Varadkar says the practice was “discontinued” in the past seven years.

Leo Varadkar (L) and Eoin Ó Broin (R).
Leo Varadkar (L) and Eoin Ó Broin (R).

Updated Jun 9th 2021, 7:02 PM

TÁNAISTE AND FINE Gael leader Leo Varadkar has said his party has “done something similar” after it was reported that Sinn Féin party members had pretended to be pollsters to conduct election surveys.

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

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

Speaking to reporters at Government Buildings today, Varadkar said that Fine Gael has not undertaken this practice since 2016 and has instead used polling companies .

However, Varadkar said he “can’t swear blind about local arrangements that may have been done in the past”.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme this evening, Varadkar 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”.

Speaking this morning on Newstalk’s The Pat Kenny Show, Sinn Fein’s 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.

“You’re trying to compete with the bigger parties who are able to pay professional polling companies, so it was the only way parties like ours were able to do polling.”

He claimed it was a way to “have a level playing field”. 

Local polling by local party organisations has been a common feature. There is nothing untoward about it. People voluntarily answer the polls, it’s a way of gathering polling data.

The Irish Independent reported that a manual showed detailed instructions on how to present as a researcher working for a fake company to survey voters. 

Ó Broin said: “The polls were done properly and were done ethically, in my view.

“Thankfully because the party has grown we are now able to employ professional polling companies, we don’t have to do this kind of activity anymore  but it is very, very commonplace.

“If we spend tens of thousands of euros employing a professional polling company to do the same thing, you also don’t know that they’re employed by a particular political party. That’s the nature of polling, it’s always anonymised, you never know who the instigator of the poll is.”

He said the anonymous data collected was used in the same way as it would from a professional polling company.

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

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He said the anonymous information gathered would have been accessed through an election directorate in the constituency.

Also speaking to reporters about this issue today, Labour Party leader Alan Kelly said the practice is “absolutely not” something that has occurred in his party. 

Kelly said he was not surprised “when it comes to Sinn Féin as regards their behaviour when it comes to issues like this”.

The Data Protection Commission said in a statement to The Journal that it was contacting to Sinn Féin to “see if there’s personal data involved”. 

Following Varadkar’s admission that Fine Gael had engaged in similar practices, 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. 

- Additional reporting by Rónán Duffy.

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