Peace Polls

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Peace Building Problem.

Each party to a conflict want their particular agenda dealt with first, preferably, if at all possible, as a precondition to the negotiations proper. Such rigidity can stall negotiations in the pre-negotiation agenda setting stage so no one 'gets off first base'.

Northern Ireland Experience

The Unionists took the view that several of the issues that were part of the agenda for the Stormont talks should not be items for negotiation at all because they were in breach of domestic UK or international European law. In particular Unionists believed decommissioning of paramilitary weapons, particularly those belonging to the IRA, and the removal of the Irish claim over the territory of Northern Ireland, in Articles 2 and 3 of their constitution, were not matters for negotiation. Rather they felt these issues should be settled to the satisfaction of Unionists before the negotiations proper for a power sharing assembly, North/South bodies, police reform and so on. Republicans and Nationalists accepted none of this. They believed Unionists would negotiate no further once they had got what they wanted on these critical points. The talks were stalled and several questions were written specifically to address these problems. For example, in the poll published in the Belfast Telegraph on 11 September 1997,(1) 65 per cent of Protestants considered it 'unacceptable' to stay in the talks with Sinn Féin if their cease-fire broke down while only 12 per cent of Catholics shared this view. On the other hand 52 per cent of Catholics considered it 'unacceptable' to make decommissioning a talks precondition while only 16 per cent of Protestants agreed, Table 1. The solution to this apparently intractable dilemma was the establishment of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning to deal with the problem while the talks were in progress.

Table 1. All the parties should be prepared to talk to each other...

[Percentage 'Unacceptable']

Even if the cease-fires do not hold. (Protestant) 65% - (Catholic) 12%

So long as the cease-fires hold. (Protestant) 16% - (Catholic) 8%

So long as the cease-fires hold and there is also some decommissioning. (Protestant) 10% - (Catholic) 17%

Only after decommissioning has been completed. (Protestant) 16% - (Catholic) 52%

Opinions were also split on when to deal with the problem of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. But this issue was not so critical as the question of decommissioning. Only 17 per cent of Protestants and 3 per cent of Catholics considered it 'unacceptable' not to ‘Keep the Talks going’ on this occasion and ‘let reform of the Republic of Ireland's Constitution be dealt with at the same time as all the other issues that must be part of an over all settlement’. This is what happened.

Public Opinion Poll Action

Test proposals for precondition items against public opinion. When 'we' do not want 'their' issues dealt with before 'ours' and 'they' do not want 'our' issues dealt with before 'theirs' the only option that will gain the widest cross community support will be for all issues to be dealt with at the same time without any preconditions. However, on many occasions, both communities will actually prefer negotiations to go ahead without any preconditions or delays at all, particularly if the issue is not critical to their safety or security.

Israel and Palestine

Negotiations between Israel and Palestine are not ‘getting past go’ because of the settlement issue. Palestinians are not asking for the removal of illegal settlements before negotiations can start, or the removal of checkpoints or an end to occupation. Their bottom line is simply no more settlement expansion during negotiations. Israelis want an end to rocket attacks from Gaza. The Palestinians have been able to arrange such cease-fires in the past so a quid-pro-quo poll that explores all such possibilities in a balanced way should produce a positive result with no more breaches of international law on either side. Such a poll that examines every conceivable precondition from both a Palestinian and Israeli point of view, however extreme and unreasonable, has never been run because, in a peace poll, the utter reasonableness of balanced accommodations tied only to negotiations would inevitably come through as the logical choice. (2) Faced with such a threat to the status quo Israel was allowed to engage in a program of partisan polling that focused on the views of the settlers and the peace process, under the stewardship of Senator George Mitchell, was brought to an untimely close. Such errors of public diplomacy can be fatal and should not be repeated. (3)

1 C. J. Irwin, ‘YES vote for talks’, Belfast Telegraph, Thursday, September 11th, (1997).

2 For a preliminary analysis of these peace process solutions see the Irwin/OneVoice 2009 peace poll Israel and Palestine: Public Opinion, Public Diplomacy and Peace Making.

3 For a review of these issues see Chapter 9, Israel and Palestine, in Irwin, C. J., (2012) The People's Peace, CreateSpace, Scotts Valley, CA.