Micheál Martin: Party volunteers should not have posed as pollsters

Green Party says activists may have pretended to be market researchers in ‘isolated incidents’

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin says he does not known if his party’s polling activity had been against the law.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin says he does not known if his party’s polling activity had been against the law.

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said that the practice of political party volunteers posing as pollsters should not have happened.

It was not right, it was not proper and should not have happened, he told Newstalk Breakfast.

Prior to 2007 members of Fianna Fáil had been used to supplement polling companies who oversaw the polling exercise, he added.

When asked if the party had broken the law by doing this, Mr Martin said he did not know. No personal data had been taken or recorded.

No fake IDs had been used by the party activists, he said.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Mr Martin said he had never commissioned a poll in his own constituency and that previous statement that the party had not done so was made in good faith before being clarified. Since 2007 the practice has been discontinued, he said. He said in his time as party leader external polling companies have been used. He also said he believed the practice was wrong.

The Green Party has said there may have been “isolated incidents” where it used party volunteers to carry out polling using a false company name.

Sinn Féin also said party activists posed as market researchers to conduct polling, and Fine Gael said it had done something “similar”.

A Green Party spokesman said: “When we initially asked around internally yesterday it appeared that no-one in the party had ever engaged in using volunteers to carry out polling using a false company name.

“However, it later emerged that there may have been some isolated incidences of this taking place in some constituencies over a decade ago.“

“To be clear, this is not something that the present day party approves of or would ever engage in,” the spokesman said. On Weednesday the party said it had never engaged in such practices.

Fine Gael TD and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he was aware that party volunteers in his constituency posed on the doorstep as independent pollsters and that should not have happened.

He said they did not set up a fake company but there were people doing survey work and “not saying they were Fine Gael”. Mr Coveney said it became clear that is was not the “professional way to do things”. He said it happened 5,6 or 7 years ago and politics was “looser” back then. He said the party would be up front about any data protection issues.

Fine Gael byelection candidate James Geoghegan told reporters he engaged in door-to-door polling as a volunteer for Lucinda Creighton, who was a member of Renua back in 2016. He said he surveyed about 50 people and no one asked where he was from.

Political parties will have to reveal to the Data Protection Commissioner if they are processing personal data gathered during polling, where practices such as party activists posing as pollsters may have been used.

The DPC is already conducting a wide-ranging audit of parties’ treatment of personal data, with the watchdog indicating on Wednesday that each party should identify whether personal data was gathered during the polling and, if so, what was done with it.

Sinn Féin’s actions were first revealed in an article in Wednesday’s Irish Independent, which detailed how party activists were issued with ID badges bearing the name of a non-existent market research company, Irish Market Research Agency.

Initially, the DPC said it would write to Sinn Féin, but later said: “As part of the DPC’s ongoing audit of political parties that commenced recently, all political parties have been asked to account for the source of each field of personal data they process concerning electors/voters.”

Sinn Féin activists posed as pollsters when engaging with voters in 2015. Fianna Fáil confirmed party members had also done so, prior to 2007, while Leo Varadkar said Fine Gael had engaged in “similar” practices before 2016.

Data protection experts said a key issue would be whether any personal data was gleaned from voters by either party, and if so, how it was used.

“If you didn’t keep personally identifiable information, and just kept statistical information, that doesn’t raise data protection questions,” said Simon McGarr, a solicitor and expert in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

However, if personal data had been collected, parties could still be exposed even if the activity had been discontinued prior to the introduction of the GDPR in 2018.

Fred Logue, also a solicitor and GDPR expert, said pre-existing data protection laws created similar obligations. “There isn’t really much of a difference between the main obligations under data protection law today and as it was three years ago,” he said.

If personal data was collected, and was still being used by any party, that could create further GDPR obligations, Mr McGarr said.

On Wednesday, Sinn Féin said: “No identifiable private information or data is ever used, collected or stored. It is entirely anonymous – that is the whole point of it.”

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael did not respond to detailed questions on Wednesday night.

Trust

Damian Loscher, managing director of Ipsos-MRBI – which conducts polling for The Irish Times – said the practice was “not right” and “trust is undermined by behaviours like this”.

Catherine Murphy, co-leader of the Social Democrats, accused Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil of not being transparent when originally questioned. She said there was a “latent culture” in some political parties “in which deception was not only tolerated, but encouraged”.

She said voters were “fed mistruths” and their information “gathered under false pretences”. The Social Democrats, the Green Party and Labour said on Wednesday they had not engaged in activities where individuals posed as researchers or pollsters.

Earlier, Sinn Féin defended the polling carried out by party members purporting to be from a fake marketing company.

The party’s housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said the localised polling was no different to research carried out by other political parties. Given the expense of polling it was a “key way to level the playing field”, he told RTÉ radio.

Mr Ó Broin said the polling data was always anonymised. He said the party members had badges with their real names and photos with the name of the market research company.

“This is a common part of election practices,” he said.

Mr Ó Broin told Pat Kenny on Newstalk that he did not accept it was unethical. “It’s a standard practice in political party activity. I am aware of many instances in my own constituency where larger parties have done exactly the same thing, this is standard practice, if people knew how much a professional opinion poll costs,” he said.

He said that when people were calling to doors conducting these polls for the party that was “exactly what they were doing – anonymised polls for the purpose of collecting polling data and that data was used exactly the same way as if you were paying a professional company or you’re doing it [IN]some other manner – it’s exactly what it says on the tin”.

He said the polls were always done properly. “The accuracy of those polls was just as good as polls that you would pay thousands of euros for and we stand over that. The polls were done properly and ethically in my view,” he said.

He said professional pollsters do not identify who their client is.

Fine Gael

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said Fine Gael conducted “similar” polling to that done by Sinn Féin.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme on Wednesday evening, Mr Varadkar was asked if his party had engaged in any similar exercises.

“Quite frankly yes,” he told the programme. He said that prior to 2016, “we would have done something similar, 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”

He said the practice was discontinued, perhaps as early as 2014, and had not been done in the last five to seven years. Earlier on Wednesday, when he was asked about the practice, Mr Varadkar had said it was not done during his period as leader of the party.

“But I can’t swear blind about local arrangements that may have been done in the past, but not during my period as leader, we’ve only ever used companies that have been above board.”