Fine Gael members used business cards from a non-existent company when carrying out polling for the party prior to 2016, The Irish Times has learned.
A Fine Gael spokesperson said on Thursday evening that all polling from 2016 onwards had been carried out by research companies and independent contractors.
However, while the majority of polling prior to this was done by similar outfits, the party confirmed that members who were paid or volunteered also carried out polling in constituencies.
A spokesman for the party said: “On occasion they did not correctly identify where they were from, and when asked some would have replied by reference to a non-existent polling company and had business cards in support of that.
“This should not have happened. All polling data was gathered in an anonymous format and not retained. Unlike other parties, Fine Gael does not have a central database of voters. Fine Gael will respond fully to any queries from the Data Protection Commissioner.”
Meanwhile, the head of a global research industry body has said political parties were in “clear breach” of a voluntary code for market researchers by posing as independent pollsters or fake polling companies.
Irish man Finn Raben, director general of the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research, said the disclosures that political parties have pretended to be independent pollsters while seeking the voting intentions of the public was “disappointing to say the least”.
“While there are mechanisms to reassure the public about the reputation and duty of care of research companies, there appears to be no mitigating evidence for justifying the political parties’ choice to masquerade and misrepresent their activities,” Mr Raben told The Irish Times.
Election literature produced by Sinn Féin in an “Election Toolkit”– a 77-page guide to running an election campaign ahead of the 2016 general election – shows that the party encouraged volunteers to tell the public they worked for a fake Dublin company Irish Market Research Agency. The party even produced fake “IMRA” authorisation cards in the guide.
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party and Sinn Féin have admitted that their party members polled the public during elections while hiding the fact that they worked for a political party.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that Fianna Fáil volunteers should not have posed as pollsters and that the practice was neither right or proper.
Fine Gael TD and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he was aware that party volunteers in his constituency posed on doorsteps as pollsters and it should not have happened.
Mr Coveney said that it became clear that it was not the “professional way to do things”, and that the practice happened five, six or seven years ago when politics was “looser”.
Mr Raben said that these kind of practices were "in flagrant breach" of the General Data Protection Regulation if they took place after the EU data protection law came into effect in 2018.
“Will the parties in question subject themselves to the redress requirements of the GDPR?” he said.
Research firms sign up to a voluntary code governed by industry group, Esomar, that compels them to be transparent about information they collect and the purposes behind its collection.
The code, covered by the Association of Irish Market Research Organisations in this country, obliges firms to ensure researchers protect personal data and behave ethnically.
“It is clear that the reported behaviour of the political parties is in clear breach of these principles,” said Mr Raben.
He added that with increasing public concerns about individuals being able to control how their personal data is being used and for what purpose, “comes a pressing need for clear ethical and professional guidance on how to handle that data responsibly”.
Polling companies have complained that these revelations will damage their industry and the ability to carry out public opinion research.
"Anyone that is hiding their true intent – we would see it as unethical," said Richard Colwell, founder and chief executive of RedC Research, which conducts political polling.
He expressed concern that these disclosures will lead to higher numbers of people refusing to talk to legitimate pollsters.
“There will be more questions on the doorsteps, and when we ring people they will be asking us ‘are you real or not?’ That damages strike rates. That pushes up costs.”
Sinn Féin’s use of a fake company was “a bit of subterfuge” that went beyond “canvassers just knocking on doors and if nobody asks a question, they will get away with it”, he added.
Damian Loscher, managing director of Ipsos-MRBI, which conducts polling for The Irish Times, said the highlighted practices undermine public trust in the work they carry out as they "puts a question mark in the public's mind" and makes the job of genuine pollsters more difficult.
“We, as an industry, rely on the goodwill and trust of the public. We protect our reputation because if we lose the public’s trust, we lose our ability to accurately poll public opinion.”