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‘Rational’ versus ‘emotional’ referendums in Northern Ireland, Colombia, Brexit and possibly Cyprus.

Colin Irwin, Department of Politics, University of Liverpool

Here is my ‘take’ on the polling I did for the Northern Ireland referendum, which was ‘spot on’ and the Colombian referendum that ‘missed by a mile’ with implications for Cyprus and possibly some lessons for Brexit just in case the Liberals get their way and we have another referendum.


Firstly we had a year of polling on various ‘planks’ in the Northern Ireland peace process all of which were published and fed into the public debate and negotiations. Secondly the questionnaire used to measure public support for a referendum was written as a synthesis of all these polls to achieve a balanced ‘package’ of ‘pro’ and ‘con’ elements that would meet the needs of both the Catholic and Protestant communities. Thirdly informants were then asked their opinions about each ‘plank’ in the agreement and where appropriate their views on associated opposition/radical proposals so that the potential referendum ‘Yes’ result could be contrasted with the potential ‘No’ results all of which fed into a public diplomacy campaign. This polling result was ‘spot on’ (see page 212 to 214 in my book The People’s Peace).


The analysis of the OAS Mission to the Plebiscite in Colombia suggests that the Colombian publics were not prepared for the referendum with a public diplomacy campaign. This clearly was not the case in Northern Ireland. Additionally I would add that if the questionnaire used to measure public support for the peace agreement there had been balanced out with all its major pros and cons then perhaps the polling would have been more accurate but as the OAS point out the decision people made was emotional rather than rational or well considered. Our decision in Northern Ireland was both rational and well considered. Finally the Colombian sample was seriously deficient and there is no excuse for this. If ORB International can get a good sample in Syria then getting a good sample in Colombia can only be a question of resources.


When we compare Northern Ireland and Colombia then it is very clear that the decisions taken were emotional and not rational. If we compare the questionnaires used for the Brexit polling and the Northern Ireland polling they are totally different. But then this is because we knew what the deal was in Northern Ireland after years of discussion and negotiations. The same could be true in Israel and Palestine if they ever did a deal there. As for Brexit no one knows what the deal is yet. Hopefully, as the deal emerges over the coming months and years then perhaps it will be possible to do some polling like the work done in Northern Ireland.


Negotiations for the reunification of Cyprus have now reached a high point in the hope that a deal can be done by the end of the year that is acceptable to both the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots in a referendum. But unlike the Northern Ireland peace process their negotiations have not been undertaken in combination with a detailed public opinion analysis of their agreements constituent parts in the two communities. Hopefully there will be time to correct this omission before a referendum. They need a rational decision not an emotional one.