Richard Sinnott obituary: A giant of Irish political science

UCD academic became widely known by appearing on RTÉ TV election panels

Prof Richard Sinnott of UCD in 2003. Photograph: Eric Luke

Prof Richard Sinnott of UCD in 2003. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Born: June 30th, 1947
Died: January 3rd, 2022

Richard Sinnott, who has died aged 74, was a political scientist who raised the standards of research and analysis, thereby making a significant and lasting contribution to the field in Ireland.

While earning the admiration and respect of his colleagues in academe, he also achieved a popular following as a clear-headed and able communicator as a regular member of RTÉ television election panels.

He spent most of his career as a member of the academic staff in the department of politics at University College Dublin, but his reputation was Europe-wide. He wrote numerous research papers and oversaw many more; he wrote and also co-authored many scholarly books, with colleagues from leading academic institutions in the United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark and Germany.

“He was very much a pioneer,” according to his colleague and admirer, David Farrell, professor of politics at the UCD school of politics and international relations. “Together with Michael Marsh of Trinity, he played a major role in introducing the study of Irish elections into political science here ... Perhaps his most notable UCD contribution was the establishment of the Centre for European Economic and Public Affairs, a forerunner in European studies which remains a core focus of our curriculum.”

Richard Sinnott was born in Wexford in June 1947. His parents, Richard and Peggy Sinnott, had medical backgrounds – he was a pharmacist, she a nurse – and met while working together on the tuberculosis eradication scheme in Co Wexford.

Sinnott grew up in the family home, a tall house on Rowe Street in the centre of the town. An early indication of his leaning was to be found in his keeping, as a child, a book on each of the building’s four floors so reading material was always close to hand, wherever he was in the house.

A prized possession in youth was a telescope, with which he scanned the night sky.

He went to the local Christian Brothers primary school. Aged 10, he spent a year at Irish school in Waterford’s Gaeltacht in An Rinn. This gave him the skill to win a medal for debating in Irish when a boarder at his secondary school, Newbridge College in Kildare.

Religious detour

Having been schooled by Dominicans, it was perhaps not surprising that his first choice after the Leaving Certificate was to enrol as a novice in the order. He trained for four years, one in Cork and three in Tallaght, Co Dublin, but in the event, decided not to pursue ordination, preferring instead to study history and politics in UCD.

It was there, in his first year, that he met Margaret Murray from Athlone, a social science student. Their first outing was an 18-mile hike in Wicklow with UCD’s Mountaineering Club.

They married in 1971 and settled eventually in Sandymount, where they raised their children, Gillian and Daniel. But life together also included stints living in Washington (where Richard was awarded his PhD by Georgetown University, having attained a master’s in UCD under the tutelage of Prof Brian Farrell, father of David) as well as Florence, Boston and Oxford.

On his return to Dublin from Washington in 1974, he took a research fellowship with the Economic and Social Research Institute, where he worked with, among others, Brendan Whelan, and published a thought-provoking report on attitudes in the Republic of Ireland towards Northern Ireland.

In 1976, he was appointed an assistant lecturer, later professor, in politics at UCD, the fulcrum of his life’s work. Among his innovations there was the introduction of the teaching of international relations and the use of computers as a research tool.

“He introduced quantitative research methods – that is, the use of computers in political science,” says David Farrell, one of his students at the time. This was the early days of computers as research tools: desktop and laptop machines were unknown and students had to book time on a mainframe computer to effect their research, which often involved survey data on voting intentions.

“These days it is very much more advanced but Richard really brought that sort of rigour to political science,” says Farrell.

Scientific rigour

As an election-time analyst for RTÉ, Sinnott brought academic rigour when reading the runes on voter patterns and the permutations of ballot box outcomes. He was unflappable: on one occasion a power outage prevented a computer printing out result tabulations but Sinnott, aided by candlelight, drew the graphs by hand and the show went on.

In 2010, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that affects speech, balance and ambulatory functions. Despite this, he kept his spirits up, according to his son, Daniel.

“He was always realistic about it but good-humoured too,” he says.

With Margaret, his wife of 50 years, he had bought a small cottage, outhouses and some 30 upland acres in Glenbride, west Wicklow. About 20 years ago, he planted about half the land with native Irish trees and, with pride, watched them grow.

Richard Sinnott is survived by his wife, Margaret, children Gillian and Daniel, grandchildren Eliza, Thomas, Frederick and Mabel, and his sister Helen