BLOG - Peace Making Lessons from Northern Ireland to Israel and Palestine: 4 - Establishing confidence in the peace process
Colin Irwin Sun 01 Jul 2012 updated: Mon 02 Jul 2012
Peace Building Problem.
After years of violence, ‘off again - on again’ war and numerous failed political initiatives to bring the conflict to an end very few people have any confidence that yet another attempt to conclude an agreement will be any more successful than all the failures of the past.
Northern Ireland Experience
In addition to all the sophisticated questions designed to map out the structure and elements of a peace agreement a few simple ‘Yes/No’ questions were included in each of the Northern Ireland polls with the intention of creating a confidence-building headline in the local press. Consequently on the front page of the Belfast Telegraph of 7 April 1997 (1) under the banner headline ‘YOUR VERDICT’ sub headlines from the first poll also read ‘94% Want a negotiated settlement’ as well as ‘69% Do not want talks to stop’ but also more soberly ‘74% Believe Stormont talks will fail’. In the second poll on 11 September 1997 (2) the headline was ‘92% SAY YES’ to the question ‘Do you want your party to stay in the talks?’ and the editorial leader was entitled ??Yes’ to talks’. Additionally ‘Put talks package to vote’ was the front-page story the following day on 12 September (3) with the observation that ‘Less than one in ten - 9% - regard the idea as unacceptable’. The third poll moved on from questions of procedure and started to deal with the substance of a settlement so that on 12 January 1998 (4) the front page story was ‘Poll signals backing for new assembly’, on 13 January (5) it was ‘NORTH SOUTH LINKS VERDICT’ and on 14 January (6) the front page story was ‘Poll reveals Ulster yes for islands council’. Before the agreement was signed it was tested in the fourth poll. On 31 March 1998 (7) the banner headline was ‘77% SAY YES’ and the deal was finally struck on Good Friday. But that wasn’t the end of the matter. Implementation became a problem with Unionists wanting ‘guns before government’ and Republicans wanting ‘government before guns’. On 3 March 1999 (8) the front page story was ‘DUP voters want deal to work: poll’ and the inside page was ‘93% SAY: MAKE THE AGREEMENT WORK’. But it didn’t work all that summer so with Senator Mitchell as facilitator everyone tried again. By 26 October (9) the Belfast Telegraph front page headline now read ‘65% STILL FOR DEAL’ - that is to say they would still vote ‘Yes’ while 85 per cent still wanted the agreement to work. Support was not as strong as it was but as the editorial pointed out on that day it was ‘Still the best option’. Confidence was maintained.
Public Opinion Poll Action
Although the public opinion polls must deal with all the problems and possible solutions that lie at the heart of a conflict questions of confidence and continued progress should also be addressed by asking people if they want a political agreement, an end to violence, negotiations to be started, timely decisions to be made, democratic institutions to be re-established, the maintenance of human rights standards and the rule of law, effective policing acceptable to the whole community and economic development in the context of peace and so on. Of course nearly everyone wants all these things and asking such questions, arguably, is a trivial use of the polls. But providing such questions are only included in the context of the more serious issues that must be addressed then giving ‘a boost’ to the self confidence of both the politicians and their electorate, from time to time, can be a very worth while thing to do in an effort to provide some encouragement to the war weary population.
Israel and Palestine
The people of Israel and Palestine are war weary, occupation weary and fruitless negotiation weary. The Israelis want security and the Palestinians want their own state so asking any question regarding a desire to achieve these goals, to end the conflict and establish the means to do so, will inevitably get a positive response. The Israeli and Palestinian media should be full of public exaltations for their politicians to do what they should do – negotiate and conclude a peace agreement. But the polls run in Israel and Palestine rarely do this – Why? Firstly it is only worthwhile to do so when the peace process is active. If the prospect of progress is zero then there is no point in building up the people’s hopes only to get them shattered. Secondly, and more commonly, failed politicians prefer negative headlines that emphasise the public expectation that they will indeed fail. So expectations get polled while desires get ignored to give these failed politicians an opportunity to say ‘the people did not think that this process would work anyway’. Expectation questions should never be asked in isolation. They are run for the benefit of these failed politicians who expect or may even want a failed peace process. The media will inevitably run such questions that underline the negative expectations of their publics so peace polls must always counter such questions by running them alongside questions that emphasise the people’s desires for peace process success.
1 M. Simpson, 'YOUR VERDICT', Belfast Telegraph, Monday, April 7th, (1997).
2 M. Simpson, '92% SAY YES', Belfast Telegraph, Thursday September 11th, (1998).
3 M. Simpson, 'Put talks package to vote', Belfast Telegraph, Friday September 12th, (1998).
4 Political Staff, 'Poll signals backing for new assembly', Belfast Telegraph, Monday, January 12th, (1998).
5 M. Purdy, 'NORTH - SOUTH LINKS VERDICT', Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday, January 17th, (1998).
6 N. McAdam, 'Poll reveals Ulster yes for islands council', Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday, January 14th, (1998).
7 P. Connolly, '77% SAY YES', Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday, March 31st, (1998).
8 M. Purdy, 'DUP voters want deal to work: poll', Belfast Telegraph, Wednesday March 3rd, (1999).
9 N. McAdam, '65% STILL FOR DEAL', Belfast Telegraph, Tuesday, October 26th, (1999).