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Making peace in two deeply divided societies, Northern Ireland and Brexit UK

Colin Irwin   Thu 24 Jan 2019   updated: Wed 30 Jan 2019

In his keynote address at a conference on ‘Brexit and Public Opinion 2019’ organised by the UK in a Changing Europe Sir John Curtis quite rightly underlined the point that ‘remainers’ and ‘leavers’ are strongly polarised on issues concerning the future relationship of the United Kingdom and the European Union. In this context he also suggested that there was little or no support for any one solution to this problem as, like Parliament, there was not a clear majority of the British public in favour of one solution or another. Again the facts from the various public opinion surveys cited by Sir John suggest that he was right and in the following discussion he pointed out that even in Northern Ireland more than 50 per cent of Unionists voted ‘yes’ for the Belfast Agreement. True again but this fact misses the point that both Northern Ireland and Brexit UK are two ‘deeply divided societies’ and to get to a compromise in Northern Ireland in which both Unionists and Nationalists / Protestants and Catholics agreed a political way forward we had to get them there from a base where support for that compromise was not 50 per cent plus but closer to 10 per cent. Critically, if we had used Sir John’s methods for analysing public opinion in Northern Ireland we would never have got to peace! Clearly this assertion needs to be supported with some public opinion facts.

Sir John cited the results of a poll commissioned by the Change Britain campaign and completed by BMG. In this study eight options were tested ranging from leaving the EU on a Canada-style deal, to a Norway-style deal, the government’s withdrawal agreement and a second referendum with informants being asked to select their most preferred option. Firstly, with so many options on offer it is difficult to get above 50 per cent for any one option and, most importantly, we do not know what informants second and third choices might be and therefore do not know where a compromise might be found between leavers and remainers or between Conservative and Labour party supporters.

As a tool for conflict resolution analysis this methodology is worse than useless as it highlights differences without identifying common ground. Similarly when eight options for the resolution of the Northern Ireland conflict were tested against public opinion only 11 per cent of Protestants and 10 per cent of Catholics accepted the power sharing compromise that became the Belfast Agreement. For Protestants remaining in the United Kingdom without sharing power with Catholics was their number one choice at 49 per cent but it was also the last/eighth choice for Catholics at 33 per cent (see table in pdf attached). So power sharing was the way forward.

But in the real negotiations of the Belfast Agreement we had to deal with literally hundreds of issues and test them against public opinion to help the negotiators come to a compromise and it simply is not possible to rank order hundreds of options. So we came up with a qualitative scale that would achieve the same result for each and every item. The negotiators wanted to know what their publics considered to be ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’ or ‘acceptable’ or ‘tolerable’ or definitely ‘unacceptable’ and when we used this five point scale the politicians could see exactly what each side needed in an agreement and what they would never agree to. A settlement of the Northern Ireland problem was the result with more than 50 per cent of Protestants voting ‘Yes’ for power sharing and the Belfast Agreement. We can do exactly the same for Brexit to find out what remainers and leavers, as well as Conservative and Labour supporters, can compromise on to mend the divisions in the UK body politic and a draft question and questionnaire is provided in the attached pdf to do just that.

The UK is taking on many of the characteristics of deeply divided societies found around the world. This fact needs to be recognised and acted on by the political leadership. Such leadership is not easy, indeed it is very difficult, but the research community can help by providing that leadership and the public with facts and analysis from conflict resolution best practice. In this regard the polling methods used in Northern Ireland are best practice and should be used to analyse and resolve Brexit

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Making peace in two deeply divided societies