Paul Hosford: Parties cutting corners to get up the greasy poll

All three Coalition partners and the main opposition party are now lined up in a circular firing squad over phoney polling
Paul Hosford: Parties cutting corners to get up the greasy poll

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s campaign used students posing as representatives of a fictitious polling company as part of his Dáil re-election bid.

Like most people, I would not consider myself naive — though that itself could be the hallmark of naivety.

But as the scale and method of the use of anonymous polling throughout the years by political parties has come to light, I have found myself somewhat taken aback.

Of course, the existence of internal constituency polling has never been a secret, but many will have assumed that these polls were either carried out professionally or at least wouldn’t have countenanced the setting up of fake companies or paying students to anonymously obtain the data.

Indeed, such was the shock at Sinn Féin’s use of fake ID badges and a phoney company to poll voters, that politicians from other parties lined up to give them a kicking.

SF's unconvincing defence

Calls were made for Garda inquiries, the involvement of the Data Protection Commissioner, and more. Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin gave a fairly unconvincing defence of the practice, saying there was nothing deceptive about the use of fake IDs by people pretending to be from a fake company for the purposes of obtaining the one piece of personal data that has managed to remain somewhat secure these days.

While Mr Ó Broin said that it was not deception to do as Sinn Féin had done, everyone who has ever used a sibling’s ID to get served in a pub felt the sweet relief of absolution. You see, you use fake IDs when what you’re doing isn’t entirely above board.

The Dublin Mid-West TD’s morning appearance on Newstalk FM went some way to fuelling the fire under those in other parties as grassroots members of political opponents revelled in the news.

They called Sinn Féin a “threat to democracy” and used that well-worn phrase that Mary Lou McDonald’s is “not a normal party”.

And why woudn’t they? The Irish Independent story had been properly reported, and each party given the chance to comment, which they did in the negative.

Fianna Fáil said it was “not aware” of such a practice, while Fine Gael was slightly more circumspect in its commentary, saying that “occasionally, polling would have been carried out by the organisation locally without direct supervision of headquarters”.

That was enough for Higher Education Minister Simon Harris to go on Newstalk and call Sinn Féin’s methods “a bit sinister”.

Fine Gael too... 

The only issue for Mr Harris was that, at more or less at the same time, his party leader, Leo Varadkar, was on RTÉ’s Drivetime saying that, yes, Fine Gael had done the same thing, but had ended the practice around 2016. Some in Fine Gael were unimpressed by this timing, with one source quipping: "Welcome to the world of Leo."

Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney admitted he was aware that members in his own constituency had posed as independent pollsters.

More embarrassing than the former tánaiste’s revelation was that he was flanked by the party’s candidate in the Dublin Bay South by-election, James Geoghegan, who revealed that not only had he known about the practice, he had engaged in it himself as a member of Renua.

...and Fianna Fáil

Later that evening, Fianna Fáil said it had become aware of its party carrying out a similar action as Sinn Féin. They had possibly become aware due to the sheer number of former party members who said that they had partaken.

Then Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry, who had earlier called for a criminal investigation into Sinn Féin, now demanded that the Taoiseach resign, despite Fianna Fáil saying the polling ended in 2007, four years before Micheál Martin became leader.

...and the Greens

Then, yesterday morning, the Green Party said that it, too, had done the same, meaning that the largest four parties in the country — the three coalition partners and the main opposition party — are now in a circular firing squad over a practice that, it seems, was all too widespread and, despite what party apparatchiks will argue, not all that harmless.

People have a right to expect that those asking an extremely sensitive question will be transparent about who they are and how that data will be treated.

They also have the right to expect that those wishing to take office are not scheming to obtain data about them to which they have no divine right — the ballot is secret and voting intention should only be given on a transparent basis.

Building maps of voting intention does not benefit anyone other than the political parties who hold that information, and if parties believed there was no issue in doing so, there would have been no subterfuge involved. They may argue that identifying themselves would skew the data, but is that a justification?

Sinn Féin is a normal party after all

For Sinn Féin, its members have argued that it was merely playing catchup and centralising the practice to make up for the decades of headstart that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael had.

But Sinn Féin’s calling card over the last 18 months has been precisely that it is not those two parties. If Sinn Féin is really an alternative, how can it square acting as a facsimile? Shouldn’t change mean not just in theory, but in every single practice too?

The problem in this case, it seems, is not that Sinn Féin is ‘not a normal party’. It is that it is too normal.

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