Leo Varadkar campaign used students as fake pollsters in 2011 Dáil re-election bid

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s campaign used students posing as representatives of a fictitious polling company with fake business cards as part of his Dáil re-election bid, the Irish Independent can reveal

he Tánaiste is the latest politician to become embroiled in the fake polling controversy that has engulfed Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens.

It comes as former taoiseach Bertie Ahern contradicted his successor Micheál Martin, who had said prior to 2007 Fianna Fáil members undertook polling while pretending to be market researchers. “To be honest I don’t think that’s correct,” Mr Ahern said.

In the run-up to the 2011 general election Mr Varadkar’s campaign used volunteers and students drawn from Young Fine Gael branches in universities to carry out polling in his Dublin West constituency, where he was seeking re-­election to the Dáil.

These ‘pollsters’ were given fake business cards with the name ‘Political Research Association of Ireland’ (PRAI) – an organisation that does not exist – written on them to show at the doors if asked to identify where they were from, according to a person who took part in the polling operation and who asked not to be named.

Those carrying out the surveys did not identify themselves as polling on behalf of Fine Gael. The person who took part in the polling in Dublin West in the run-up to the 2011 election said they were told they would be paid €50 for their work – but claimed they were never paid.

Mr Varadkar, a TD since 2007, was re-elected to the Dáil in February 2011 and went on to serve in Cabinet for six years before becoming Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach in 2017.

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said last night: “Since 2016, all polling carried out by the Fine Gael party has been done through market research companies and private contractors.

“Prior to that, constituencies including Dublin West asked volunteers or paid students to carry out surveys. However, this practice was discontinued as it was considered no longer to be appropriate.

“People asked to take part in the survey were told that the purpose was a political opinion poll and consent was sought to take part. The surveys or sample ballot papers were anonymised. No names or personal data was recorded or retained.”

The latest revelations follow the Irish Independent’s report on Wednesday that Sinn Féin trained activists to set up fake polling companies. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens all subsequently admitted conducting fake polling, where party members did not identify themselves to voters.

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Fianna Fáil and the Greens had initially denied being involved in the practice. Sinn Féin housing spokesperson Eoin Ó Broin admitted to covertly surveying his constituents using a fake polling company before his election to the Dáil in 2016.

Fine Gael’s Dublin Bay South by-election candidate James Geoghegan also admitted yesterday to carrying out polling for former TD Lucinda Creighton in the run-up to the 2016 general election, when he was a member of Renua, without identifying that he was polling for the party.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney also confirmed Fine Gael members in his constituency engaged in the same practice. He described such polling as a “fairly common practice” and insisting there “wasn’t anything sinister” about it. Asked if he was sorry it had happened, Mr Coveney said: “Yeah, I think so.”

A Fine Gael spokesperson said: “Occasionally, members, who were paid or volunteered, carried out polling in constituencies. 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.”

Meanwhile, Mr Ahern told RTÉ’s Drivetime last night that Fianna Fáil officials were wrong to say that prior to 2007 party members undertook polling while pretending to be market researchers.

“I remember clearly polling done and organised by our staff in headquarters. But it was never done on the basis of fake marketing companies. It was done by Fianna Fáil activists on a Saturday morning, but not doing it in the name of a marketing company,” he said.

Earlier Taoiseach Micheál Martin had said his party “made an error” in initially claiming they did not carry out fake polls.

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