Pioneering market researcher and political pollster

Jack Jones: his polling figures for the 1977 election proved remarkably accurate and cemented his reputation as a pollster

Jack Jones: his polling figures for the 1977 election proved remarkably accurate and cemented his reputation as a pollster


JACK JONES: Jack Jones was probably best known as the father of political polling in Ireland. A former Army captain, he had joined the Defence Forces on leaving school and having attained the rank of captain, made the somewhat unexpected move to market research, taking up a position with AC Neilsen in Dublin.

At the funeral in Terenure College chapel on Wednesday, Jones’s son Barry said his father had explained the courageous move by claiming “market research is to business what military intelligence is to the Defence Forces”.

It was pioneering stuff in the Ireland of the early 1960s and the Market Research Bureau of Ireland (MRBI), which Jones set up in July 1962, endured a quiet first three months. Things picked up rapidly, however, when another innovator, then Bord Bainne chief executive Tony O’Reilly, delivered MRBI one of its first big contracts.

This placed MRBI on the path to commercial success, but eventually it took a turn into the world of politics.

In 1977 Jones conducted a private poll for the Fine Gael party at the behest of a fellow statistician, Garret FitzGerald. On the eve of the 1977 election Jones presented the Fine Gael/Labour cabinet, of which FitzGerald was a member, with the stark view that they would lose, and lose badly.

It was said to be not a view that was universally accepted around the cabinet table but the resulting Fianna Fáil landslide vindicated the polls. The episode cemented the relationship between FitzGerald and Jones over the following three decades.

In 1986 the SDLP hired MRBI to assist Seamus Mallon in polling for the Newry and Armagh byelection, a seat Mallon won and held until 2005.

The party also recruited MRBI to assist in polling for the campaign of Eddie McGrady in South Down, in the subsequent general election of 1987. McGrady’s landmark win, after three earlier, unsuccessful attempts, brought an end to the parliamentary career of Enoch Powell.

The quality of courage had always been evident in Jones’s career decisions, from joining the Army to leaving it and then starting a new business. But it was his integrity, when, aged 75, he gave expert testimony in the High Court over 7½ hours, which was singled out by the judge. The case concerned was Des Hanafin’s challenge to the outcome of the 1995 divorce referendum.

Jack Jones was also remembered this week as the “father” of a generation of students at the College of Commerce in Rathmines where he was generous with his time in explaining the importance of correct statistical interpretation.

He was devoted to his late wife Patty (Patricia, née Doherty). They met in the 1940s when Jones was stationed in Kilkenny, during his army days. On being posted to Cork for three months, he had coyly remarked to her that on his return he would like to discuss the future with her.

Her reply, according to the family, was to the effect that “when the time comes, the answer will be yes”.

He followed rugby from his schooldays in Newbridge College and was a regular at internationals, as he was at the Terenure College school matches, particularly when his children and grandchildren were playing.

The loss of Patty some 15 years ago was a bitter blow, but one shared in a close family circle. His latter years were spent surrounded by children and grandchildren and taking occasional phone calls from Garret FitzGerald on the subtleties of the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI polls.

The company became Ipsos MRBI in 2009 and on Saturday as his family learned of his passing, the company’s latest opinion poll – which showed Fianna Fáil as the most popular party in the State again – was published in this newspaper.

Among those who attended his funeral Mass were Geraldine Kennedy, former editor of The Irish Times; former Irish Independent political correspondent Chris Glennon; the former Labour MEP Brendan Halligan; as well as a wide circle of business colleagues. The coffin was draped with the Tricolour and was borne from Terenure College Chapel by Army pall-bearers .

Predeceased by Patty in August 1997, he is survived by his sons Anthony, Barry, Terry and Raymond, daughter Finola, and 14 grandchildren.