Poll star: Stephen Collins on Jack Jones, pioneer of polling in modern Ireland

A charming memoir casts light on how polling has become an indispensable tool for measuring changes in Irish public opinion

Opinion polls are a staple tool of politics in the modern world. Despite occasional grumbles that polls don’t always get it right at election time, the fact is that they are usually a very accurate guide to political trends and have become an indispensable tool for measuring changes in public opinion.

The father of polling in modern Ireland was Jack Jones, who set up the Market Research Bureau of Ireland in 1962. His company began polling for The Irish Times in 1982 and has been doing it ever since. The sequence of polls conducted over the past four decades provides an illuminating insight into the changing character of Irish politics over the period.

Jack, a former Army officer who died nine years ago at the age of 91, used to remark that “market research is to politics and business what military intelligence is to the Defence Forces”. Never was that point better illustrated that in the 1977 general election campaign. Despite the fact that polling was widely used in other countries at that time, it was still regarded with suspicion by many Irish politicians and journalists who prided themselves on being able to read the public mood.

The then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave dissolved the Dáil on May 25th, 1977, and only agreed to authorise a poll after the announcement had been made. Confidence was high among Fine Gael and Labour ministers that they were on the road to a second term, having won a series of byelections, as well has having redrawn the constituencies to give themselves the maximum number of seats, as they thought.


As the election campaign got under way, MRBI was commissioned to carry out a poll. Jack Jones headed in to Government Buildings nine days later to brief the Fine Gael and Labour Party campaign committee about its findings. The Coalition politicians were left reeling by the result which showed Fianna Fáil on 59 per cent of the vote, Fine Gael 25 per cent, Labour 10 per cent, unspecified coalition 4 per cent, and Others 2 per cent. Garret FitzGerald summed up the mood by remarking “Can we un-dissolve the Dáil”?

Fine Gael strategist Jim Dooge was given the unenviable task of taking the information to Liam Cosgrave but there were no histrionics when the bad news was imparted. “Can you trust these things,” remarked Cosgrave who had never made a secret of his own doubts about polls. “Well you can trust them to within 4 or 5 per cent,” responded Dooge. “This means we have no real chance,” said a rueful Cosgrave.

Nearly two weeks later Jack presented the results of a second poll to the coalition campaign committee. It showed that Fianna Fáil had dropped eight points to 51 per cent and gave Fine Gael and Labour some hope that the tide had turned in their favour. In fact, that second poll was bang in line with the election result a few days later which saw Jack Lynch and Fianna Fáil win a record overall majority.

Politicians were not the only people to misjudge the situation so completely. At the beginning of the election campaign, The Irish Times commissioned a poll from another company and its findings were very similar to those of MRBI. They were so contrary to conventional political wisdom that the paper didn’t even print the party political support levels.

Instead, under the heading “Survey indicates Fianna Fáil lead over Coalition” it reported that the public believed Fianna Fáil would be better able to handle the main issues of the day like unemployment, inflation, taxation and Northern Ireland. The front page report suggested that the Fianna Fáil vote in seven byelections did not bear out the poll findings.

The political parties and the Irish Times learned their lesson from their misjudgements in 1977 and in the following general elections in the early 1980s they all paid close attention to polls. MRBI began polling for The Irish Times in the second election of 1982 and has continued ever since.

A key principle established from the beginning was that while MRBI and the newspaper discussed the topics to be covered in each poll, the design of the questionnaire was left entirely to the polling company so there was never any question of The Irish Times trying to influence the outcome.

Before he died Jack was working on a memoir about his early life in Suncroft, Co Kildare, his Army career and his pioneering early days in market research. This charming account of a bygone era has now been edited and published by Áine O’Donoghue, the former managing director of MRBI who worked closely with him for many years. It will be available through the Kildare country library.