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Irish Times focus groups show the Republic is a nation grappling with change

Discussions suggest voters want something different but are unsure of what that means

A week before citizens go to the polls to elect a new Dáil and government, Ireland appears to be a country grappling with the idea of change.

The desire for it is widespread – evident across all demographics, geographical areas and classes – and the party or leader that can tap into this mood for change is set for a big day next Saturday.

But the territory is keenly contested, and voters are not yet sure exactly how much change, or of what nature, they want.

Polls so far suggest that Sinn Féin – promising radical, transformational change – is the party set to benefit most from this desire. But Fianna Fáil is in that space too, and getting some traction.


The smaller parties are jostling for space and attention, promising their own brands of change. And even Fine Gael is making those noises, promising to learn the lessons of its failures in government and come back better.

Change means different things to different people. Some voters are worried that a change would be for the worse, and they are nervous and untrusting of the promises made by politicians.

Others want a different approach from their government on the issues they are most concerned about, and they will not be diverted from that. Others are willing to try anything.

To help readers understand the mood in the country and the emotions, thoughts and beliefs that will fuel people's decisions next week, The Irish Times last week commissioned Ipsos MRBI to carry out a series of focus groups among undecided voters.

Focus groups are used extensively by political parties. A small group of voters (fewer than 10) who are undecided or open to changing their voting intention were recruited* from specific demographics to take part in a moderated discussion led by researchers, after which they were asked to fill out a mock ballot paper – not to ascertain their political choices, but to examine the thought processes in advance of the decision to vote.

Our groups met in Dublin and Mullingar on Tuesday and Thursday of this week. The discussions were then recorded and analysed.

The results were fascinating, illuminating, contradictory, determined, confused and resolute. The sessions with the selected voters give a picture of a country that knows it wants change – but is grappling with the idea of what that might mean.


The idea of a change suffuses all discussions about this election. Many participants in the groups felt the present Government had been in office for a long time, and had failed to get to grips with the problems they see around them. They are open to a change. But some are worried about what it might mean.

Most in favour of change were the older voters in Mullingar, many of whom were scathing about the performance of the Government. For them, Leo Varadkar’s administration is a bunch of “rich boys” who “don’t care” and “don’t know what’s going on on the streets”.

For some of this group, change is "anyone that's not Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael"; but not Labour, not the Greens.

“It has to be Sinn Féin,” said one participant.

The view among several members of the group is that it is time to give Sinn Féin a chance. They are impressed, as many across all groups are, with party leader Mary Lou McDonald. But others were less sure.

“How are they going to pay?” asked one about the party’s election pledges.

Some of the group were edging towards Fianna Fáil.

“When Fianna Fáil were running the country it was booming . . . they gave Ireland its best times,” ventures one participant.

Others snort.

Have they been forgiven?

“Sort of.”


“A bit.”

For younger, somewhat better-off people in Mullingar, however, the lure of change is coupled by a distrust of all politicians seeking to deliver it, and the possibility that it might be change for the worse, not for the better.

“Change to what, though?” asks one participant.

For them, the change they want is to see things done better.

“If they would just do the things they promised,” says one participant.

In Dublin, there is similar caution among some participants.

“I’d like to know what change looks like,” says one.

“We shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” says another.

They see Sinn Féin as the party offering most change – but several members of the group have doubts.

“They are change but they won’t be going into government, so they’re irrelevant,” says one participant.


The issues that crop up are the expected ones:- health, housing and crime. Public transport is a concern for the groups in Dublin and Mullingar. Many think there has been huge waste in Government, citing the national children’s hospital debacle.

“There’s nobody managing it,” says one man in Dublin.

Concern about the health service is heightened by personal experience.

The Mullingar groups are conscious of homelessness – “You see it in Dublin, people sleeping in the street” – and the Dublin groups cite experience of high rents.

“I’m paying 2½ grand a month. I have two kids. I get no breaks,” says one woman.

Taxation comes up as an issue that politicians are talking about, but there is little clarity about who is offering what. Among some voters the Sinn Féin pledge to abolish the Universal Social Charge (USC) on earnings under €30,000 has cut through, and they know that Fine Gael is also offering tax cuts.

But when one participant points out that Fine Gael promised to abolish the USC at the last election, there are nods and words of agreement.

There is little trust in politicians’ promises, and not much confidence that a new government can make substantial inroads into the problems identified in the course of the campaign. Crime is viewed as a matter of resources – gardaí on the ground, not reopening Garda stations.

Climate change makes little impression. Among older voters in Mullingar, there is open hostility to the issue, with a carbon tax seen as just a way of raising more revenue for the Government.

“When the government gets involved in climate change,” says one man, “they just make things more expensive.”

They agree young people are more conscious of the issue.

“Because they don’t have to pay for it,” injects one man.


The Irish Times commissioned Ipsos MRBI to conduct four qualitative discussion groups among undecided voters and those open to changing their voting decision.

The groups were met in Dublin and Mullingar last Tuesday and Thursday among BC1, C1C2 and C2D demographics, aged between 30-40 and 40-55.

Dublin voters were from several constituencies, while the Mullingar groups were all residents of Longford-Westmeath, with a proportion of each group from Athlone.

This research is not designed to be statistically representative of the total population. Instead, it provides indicative findings of the range of attitudes on this topic. It does not aim to provide data that can be extrapolated to the population as a whole.