Dr Eoin O’Malley, Associate Professor, DCU School of Law and Government, Director, MSc in Public Policy spoke to Spotlight in Research. Dr O'Malley was the recipient of the President's Award for Research Excellence this week at DCU.
Your work looks at politics and policies in Ireland. How did you become interested in this area?
“I grew up around politics, and was always interested in how it worked. I was particularly interested in cabinet, partly because it is constitutionally the most powerful part of government, and also because it operates behind closed doors.
Much of my research tries to find out what happens there and why it sometimes works well, producing good results, and other times, less so.”
An upcoming book that you edited examines how Fianna Fáil dominated party politics for decades.
What has the research been finding?
“One of the reasons that Fianna Fáil stayed in power was probably its combined ability to set the political agenda, to decide what areas decisions were going to be made in.
If a topic wasn’t suitable for Fianna Fáil, the party was able to put it to the Constitution, to hold a referendum on an issue it didn’t want to deal with. Or in the case of corruption, tribunals were set up.
The party managed what stayed on or off the agenda politically.”
The Fianna Fáil vote imploded though in the 2011 general election, how did that happen?
“The economic crash of 2008 was the obvious cause. Fianna Fáil had survived recessions before, but this time around was different partly because blame was clearer but also because the structure of Fianna Fáil support was weaker.
Fianna Fáil had strong core support in Irish society up to the 1970s, you had families who grew up identifying with Fianna Fáil, and perhaps without thinking too much about it, voting for the party.
From the 1970s, while there were big societal changes in Ireland, such as increased education.
People kept voting for Fianna Fáil but not because they identified closely with the party, rather because the party delivered results - solid economic growth and public spending.
But when the collapse happened in 2008, Fianna Fáil just didn’t have that core support they had been able depend on in previous recessions.”
You have also been looking at media coverage of elections in Ireland over a similar period – from 1969 to 2016.
How did you do that and what did you find?
“I’ve been working on this with a group of colleagues in DCU – Iain McMenamin, Kevin Rafter, Michael Breen and Michael Courtney.
We have been looking at the election coverage in The Irish Times and The Irish Independent, and we found there has been surprisingly little change in the nature of the coverage of elections in Ireland over the decades.
We might have expected more change given the radical changes taking place in Irish society, but the election coverage has been pretty stable, possibly because of the approach that journalists take, they tend to be impartial and value balanced coverage.
That said, there is a big difference in how women in politics are treated in the media here.
Back in the late 1960s women politicians were almost seen as exotic creatures that we should be concerned for - patted on the head.
Today women in politics get more or less the same media treatment as their male counterparts.”
You set up the MSc in Public Policy in DCU, tell us more about that.
“One of my big research interests is how policies get made. Informing policy is one of the big practical impacts that social science can have.
I was teaching this at undergraduate level and two years ago I set up the MSc in Public Policy and our first cohort is finishing up now.
They have been working on dissertations on subjects including policies on pensions and the roll out of broadband in Ireland.”
What has your own work found about how policies are made?
“The book I’m working on at the moment is about how good and bad policies are made.
I think that the interaction of interests, institutions and ideology will determine whether a good policy or a bad policy will emerge.
One instance I worked on with Cathal FitzGerald, a PhD graduate here and senior civil servant, was why the government didn’t intervene when some banks here introduced 100% loans-to-value mortgages in around 2005.
The established banks and the Department of Housing objected and the Department of Finance was asked to intervene but they decided not to.
When we looked at why the Department of Finance made that decision, we saw the query had gone to the consumer protection section in Finance.
There was this ideological hang up that competition is good and they shouldn’t intervene.”
How can looking at those instances help policymakers make future decisions with better outcomes?
“By tracing the process by which previous decisions were made we can see whether there are factors that tend to promote or derail policies.”
What do you like to do when you are not researching and writing books and papers?
“I go mountain running, I take part in races in Wicklow with the Irish Mountain Running Association.
You are running along a trail where you can’t really see where you are going, then going down the mountain faster than feels safe, it’s pretty exciting.”
You are also active on Twitter as @AnMailleach. Why do you use social media?
“I enjoy doing it and it is part of the dissemination about the research.
I also try to build more awareness and a profile for the MSc in Public Policy there, and I use it as a teaching tool to let students know what they need to read for their course.
Sometimes you can have good arguments with people on Twitter, though you have to be careful there too.”