Peace Polls

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Peace Building Problem.

The ‘horses have been brought to water’ but they simply will not drink. Everyone knows what the compromise is, the shape of the deal is clear, but no one will take the plunge. ‘After you sir’ - ‘No after you’. Without a decision being taken confidence in the peace process starts to fade, a political vacuum forms and violence creeps back onto the streets.

Northern Ireland Experience

The work with party negotiators to design the first questionnaire began in January of 1997, data collection for the first poll was undertaken between 12 and 22 March and the results were published in the Belfast Telegraph on 7, 8, and 9 April. That is about two months for the design of the poll and three weeks for interviews, analysis and writing up. Critically this poll was published to deal with procedural problems holding up the Stormont talks prior to the imminent May first general election. A change of government was expected and it was hoped the poll would help to clear the way for a fresh start to the negotiations. In particular it was intended that the results should stimulate public debate but care was taken not to publish too close to voting day so as to avoid accusations of political interference. From this time on, until the signing of the Belfast Agreement, questionnaire design was ongoing particularly when the Stormont talks were in recess. The second poll was published on Thursday 11 and Friday 12 September before an Ulster Unionist Party meeting on Saturday 13 September at which they had to decide if they would go into talks with Sinn Féin on Monday 14 September. If they decided 'No' the talks would collapse. They decided ‘Yes’. The third poll, that dealt with all the substantive elements of an agreement, was published on 10, 12, 13 and 14 January to provide 'food for thought' after the Christmas and New Year break (but no holiday for the pollsters!). Deals were made and a 'package' was tested in the fourth poll against public opinion between 12 - 20 March and published on 31 March. The Belfast Agreement was made on Good Friday 10 April 1998. The fifth poll published on 3 and 4 March 1999, created an opportunity for new negotiations on the question of decommissioning and the sixth poll published on 26 and 27 October dealt with issues raised in the Mitchell Review which was brought to a successful conclusion a week later. The seventh poll, like the second poll, was published just days before an Ulster Unionist Party meeting called to decide whether or not to take the Party back into the Executive with Sinn Féin. They did.

Public Opinion Poll Action

Timing is everything. Arrange with the parties to the negotiations when the results of a poll should be published so that the publication event will precede the decisions to be made in the negotiations by an appropriate period of days or weeks - not longer. Also get the detailed statistical reports to the parties at the same time to both assist them with the decisions they must make and allow them to give informed answers to the press. All of this will help to raise expectations for a conclusion to this part of the peace process. A good talk's chairman will seize the moment.

Israel and Palestine

With all of this experience in mind the fieldwork for the Irwin/OneVoice poll was undertaken as soon as it was known that Obama had won the US Presidency in 2008 and George Mitchell would be appointed his Special Envoy to the Middle East. The objective of this first poll was to explore all possible options for moving the peace process forward when Obama took office in 2009. Although this initiative was quite successful it was not followed up with a program of pro-active peace polling leaving the public opinion and public diplomacy field open to Israeli partisan polling that undermined the peace process by focusing on the settlement issue in an unhelpful way.(1) To say that those working on the polling and public diplomacy should cooperate closely with those responsible for the negotiations is an understatement. It needs to be much more than this. It should be a close collaboration if peace is to be achieved. In Israel and Palestine the polling undertaken in support of the peace process most commonly ‘follows the curve’ when it should be ‘ahead of the curve’ helping to set the agenda not commenting on it.

1 For a discussion of these issues see Chapter 9, Israel and Palestine, in Irwin, C. J., ‘The People’s Peace’, CreateSpace, Scotts Valley, CA., 2012.