Rory Costello, is a lecturer in the Politics and Public Administration department at the University of Limerick. He specialises in electoral and legislative politics in Europe, with a particular focus on Ireland and on the European Union. Rory developed the whichcandidate.ie website that helps voters see how their own views align with current election candidates.
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Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and your current research in UL?
I look into how well democracies are functioning and try to understand the differences in terms of how well democracies functions between countries. Countries have very different democratic systems and my research is primarily focused on comparing different types of systems and trying to assess how well they are functioning. In terms of how well voters are represented and to what extent voters have an input into national policy decisions because it doesn’t always work as well as it should and not only in Ireland but in other countries, there can be gaps between what people want and what they get in terms of government policies and that’s primarily where my research focuses on. It kind of fits in with my teaching in the area of European politics.
My research also feeds into my teaching in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Limerick where I teach on both the Undergraduate and Postgraduate programmes, it is great because I get to impart this up to date knowledge with my students.
Countries have very different democratic systems and my research is primarily focused on comparing between different types of systems and trying to assess how well they are functioning.
What prompted your interest in electoral and legislative politics?
I started out doing work on the European Union and how the European Union makes decisions and that’s what I did my PhD on. In more recent years, I’ve moved on to looking at elections and democracy, because ultimately that is that most important question when it comes to politics. What is the input of voters into decisions, are our voters satisfied with how their country is run? Do they have sufficient mechanisms for actually influencing government decisions in a democracy?
That’s fundamental, in a democracy it’s not going to be about choosing who’s in control, it’s also about voters and citizens having the opportunity to actually influence what decisions are made, that’s a fundamental point about democracy. It doesn’t always happen as well as we would like it to, I’ve always been interested in that question, so in recent years my research has veered more explicitly looking on that both at the European level, looking at European Parliament elections and how well they function, but also at the national level and looking at national elections, looking at elections such as the elections we are having in Ireland at the moment.
You have developed the whichcandidate.ie application; can you tell us a bit more about the application and what drove you to produce it?
The whichcandidate.ie web application is a tool that’s designed to try and help voters to make an informed decision. A lot of voters already know who they’re going to vote for, they might be aligned with a particular party. Particularly for younger voters, or people that might be voting in their first election, they often find it hard to decide and to make up their minds about who they should be voting for. What I am trying to do is to provide relevant information that can help people to decide. We survey and send out relevant questionnaires to all of the political parties, all of the candidates and all of those responses are available on our site. You, as a voter, can simply go onto our site and answer the same questions and you can see who you agree with and who you disagree with on each of those issues. We cover issues related to taxation and spending, related to housing and welfare and health, social issues like immigration and European integration, a whole spectrum of different issues that are relevant for different segments of the population. Hopefully people can find questions in there that they care about and then when they give their views of those questions, they can see which candidates share those views and also which parties share those views. That is relevant information when it comes to making up your mind on election day. I developed this a number of years ago.
First of all, I piloted it for the 2014 local elections here in Limerick and after that, I launched it nationally. I ran it for the 2016 general election right across Ireland covering all of the constituencies. Earlier this year we ran for the European Parliament elections, again across all constituencies in Ireland. At the moment, we have a version which is up and running for General Election 2020 and again it’s national and covers all of the constituencies, all of the parties, candidates and voters right around the country can use it and they are using it. We are getting around 10,000 users every day, so it’s quite popular and getting quite a lot of traffic.
What I am trying to do is to provide relevant information that can help people to decide.
Based on your own academic research and the application, can you give any insight into how people make the decision to vote for certain candidates in the Local, General and European elections, have you seen any trends in more recent elections?
Traditionally, in Ireland and many other countries, many people would have voted out of habit really, so they would have had a long-standing allegiance to a party. Their family maybe were aligned with a particular party, it might have been Fine Gael, or Fianna Fáil or Labour and they would have voted the same way, election after election. Sometimes if they didn’t like the current leadership of a party or the candidates, they may not bother to vote or sometimes switch to another party. For a lot of people it used to be the case that they were voting the same way a lot of the time. Now that has changed and people are much more willing to change their vote. They are much less aligned to political parties. There is a lot more floating voters out there now.
Today people are paying more attention to parties policies than they used to and I think this is particularly true for younger voters. They want to know what the parties position is on issues that they care about, it might be climate change or it might be housing. Issues have always been important but they play an ever more important role in how people vote. It’s not only issues, also image, personality, all of that also plays an increasingly important role in shaping how people vote. The key thing is people are less attached to parties, their vote is up for grabs, they are deciding later, they are more likely to change how they vote from one election to the next, we’re seeing a lot more flux and a lot more volatility in elections in recent years. That goes for national elections, it also goes for European elections as well.
Do you feel that the online and social media campaigning are becoming more important in informing voters and influencing their choice of candidate in Local, General and European elections?
Social media campaigning is becoming ever more important. In Ireland, traditionally, door to door canvasing has always been really important and it still is. A lot of people like to see their politicians and their candidates face to face on the doorstep. They expect to see them. Parties are putting increasing amounts of resources into online campaigning. Is it a good thing? They are forced to say where they stand in a way that perhaps they wouldn’t have been in the past. Our own website does the same thing. We are asking politicians where they stand on these issues. It’s very difficult to avoid giving an answer because so many people are going to be asking you to give your answer to those questions.
Online campaigning is becoming ever more important and it does have some beneficial aspects in terms of forcing politicians to declare their hand and where they stand and on different issues. There are also negative aspects to it, in that campaigning can become a little bit nastier when it’s online because people are more willing to criticize and to make maybe nasty comments about politicians when they are not seeing them face to face. The anonymity that social media provides does create the possibility of the negative aspect to election campaigning, we are seeing that creeping through a little bit but Ireland in general has avoided the kind of negative politics and negative campaigning, that we have seen for example in the United States.
Parties are putting increasing amounts of resources into online campaigning.
Do you have any insight on the current GE2020 candidates in Limerick and are there any trends you have noticed recently in the Mid-West?
In Limerick city, I wouldn’t be an election pundit in terms of predicting who’s going to win but it seems that there is a general consensus that Willie O’Dea is expected to hold a seat for Fianna Fáil, Kieran O Donnell is expected to take a seat for Fine Gael, Maurice Quinlivan will hold onto his seat for Sinn Féin. The fourth seat which is held by Jan O’Sullivan, currently, is probably one that is contested and there are a number of parties on the left that might be eyeing up that seat, for example, you have the greens with Brian Leddin, who are contesting for it as well, Jenny Blake from the Social Democrats, there is a number of parties on the left that would hope to maybe capitalise on this and take her seat but of course she is still very much in the fray as well. That would be interesting to look out for.
Finally, do you think issues such as the Housing crisis, rising homelessness, the provision of health services and Brexit will have a significant impact on voting behaviour on polling day?
Yes, to an extent. Issues like the housing crisis and rising homelessness, it’s more to do with the general perception that the current government hasn’t done enough to tackle these problems and a lot of people seem to be fed up with the current government and looking for a change. There are a lot of voters who are looking for a change. I don’t think people are looking in detail at the different policies being put forward by the parties. All of the parties are talking about increasing the rate of building for social housing and putting more resources into tackling the homelessness crisis. There are differences in terms of how much money the parties are putting into those different things, but there aren’t massive differences in terms of specific policies between the parties.
There is a lot of similarities between them, but there is the sense that the current government hasn’t tackled that issue sufficiently and so a lot of people are looking for change on that basis. I think the current government has got a lot of credit for how it handled Brexit, but there is a tendency for people to focus more on where a government has failed, rather than where a government has succeeded. There is this negativity bias if you like, in that people will tend to focus more on a party’s failings than on its’ successes.
I’m not sure how important Brexit will be in shaping how people will vote, I don’t think that Fine Gael are going to get the Brexit boost that they would have hoped for because they did get a lot of praise for how they handled the Brexit issue. I’m not sure if it’s going to play a very important role in people’s voting decision.
The final one is provisional of health services, again, it’s a little bit like housing that all the parties are saying “OK we need more investment in health services”, “we need to build more hospitals”, “more hospital beds”, “put more resources into it.” There aren’t huge differences between the parties in terms of their specific policies, but there are differences between them in terms of how much they emphasise the issue and how much resources they are planning to put into that issue. It might have an effect in terms of moving people away from the current government. People might have not done enough in tackling in problems of the health service but I don’t think it is going to be an important facture in determining which of the opposition parties they might vote for. I think across all of those issues the same thing plays through, it might influence whether you vote for the parties in government now or a different party but beyond that it is difficult to see it playing an important factor in terms of which specific party people will vote for.