Review: The People’s Peace—How Public Opinion Polls Can Build Better Peace

Peace deals are very often hammered out by a small group of negotiators behind closed doors, in smoke-filled rooms at the eleventh hour. But what do the people affected actually want? How can they be brought into the process?

In The People’s Peace, author Colin Irwin shows how polling can not only gauge public opinion, but shape it in a way that can contribute to peace. Drawing on his experience in Northern Ireland, Irwin explains how “peace polling”—asking communities and people what they would accept in exchange for peace—can build confidence among the parties, and give the public a sense of ownership in the peace process. As he points out, imposed solutions backed up by international pressure may bring temporary relief to apparently intractable problems. But home-grown solutions that have the widest possible public support create much more sustainable settlements.

Irwin argues that when wars were fought between states, statesmen made peace with the support of diplomats. Now that wars are more commonly fought between people, the people must make peace with the support of public diplomacy. Furthermore, 24/7 news coverage and social media are making people more aware of developments within their countries and around the world. In times of crisis, they feel that they are stakeholders in the destiny of their communities, and they want a voice in processes that affect them.

Irwin’s most significant work on peace polling involved nine surveys that he carried out between 1996 and 2003 in support of the Northern Ireland peace process. After overcoming initial resistance from some of the negotiators, the questions for eight of these polls were drafted and agreed upon with the cooperation of all the parties. This is consistent with what social scientist Donald Campbell calls “adversarial stakeholder participation.” By having all parties involved—and Irwin includes extremists and terrorists—one can form a more accurate picture of the full spectrum of opinions. Furthermore, it gives everyone a sense of participation in, and ownership of, the process.

Irwin also believes that all the communities and people who are party to the conflict should be asked all the questions. There should be no cherry picking of certain pet themes, nor should the views of certain groups be excluded. This makes the process as inclusive and transparent as possible.

The questions asked in Irwin’s peace polls are not designed to solicit yes-or-no answers. Rather, the respondent is asked to indicate if the option proposed is “essential,” “desirable,” “acceptable,” “tolerable” or “unacceptable.” The results, therefore, show shades of grey rather than black-and-white choices. Furthermore, these responses help to identify solutions—not just highlight problems—and show the potential for package deals that include a cluster of issues on which there is agreement.

For example, while 96% of Kosovar Albanians think that it is unacceptable for Kosovo to integrate Kosovo into Serbia, and 97% of Serbs in Kosovo are against union of Kosovo with Albania, more than 80% of Kosovo Albanians and more than 70% of Kosovo Serbs answered “yes” when asked: “It does not matter so much about the constitution, I would (stay in) or (return to) Kosovo providing I felt completely safe there, could choose my citizenship and was free to work and practice my culture, language and religion without any fear of discrimination.”

Polling in Kashmir shows that the communities would be able to accept different solutions, including autonomy, if they were given a range of options rather than just having to choose between joining either India or Pakistan.

The conclusion that emerges from many of the polls in this book is that while communities may not get their ideal first choice, they—and, most importantly, their adversaries—can usually live with their best second choice. As the Rolling Stones said, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”

Irwin is a strong believer in making public all the results of the polls, warts and all. That said, timing is crucial: results should be published to coincide with critical decision-making events in the negotiations. His point is that public opinion, public diplomacy, and negotiations should all seamlessly dovetail together.

Not surprisingly, some political elites and negotiators are not keen on peace polling. As the author points out, “using public opinion and public diplomacy in such a pro-active way runs against the natural desire of governments and interested parties to control negotiations to their particular advantage.” They do not want interference from pollsters, especially those who are not only trying to measure public opinion, but to shape it. This helps to explain why there was little buy-in for Irwin’s work in Kashmir or Sri Lanka.

Irwin, at the risk of over stating his case, believes “the interests of governments and political elites, both domestic and international, all too frequently pervert the will of the people to deny them the peace that they seek.” He regards pollsters as peacemakers and suggests that had more attention been paid to peace polling in, say, Cyprus or Sri Lanka, the crises could have been resolved. This may be true, but it is hard to prove.

Of course, there are times when discreet negotiations are essential. What can often happen during such processes is that the negotiators are able to find common ground, but their constituents are not yet prepared for peace. Under such circumstances, negotiators have to lead rather than follow public opinion. The challenge then becomes carrying out the public policy needed to sell the deal.

There is a lot of data in this book, which makes for heavy reading at times. In parts, the writing is rather technical, particularly when describing methodology. Some cases where Irwin was unable to complete his work—for example, in the Balkans, the Middle East, and Darfur—provide little added value. The author is also harsh in his assessment of some types of polling techniques, especially when describing opinion polls after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And he is scathing in his critique of the companies involved: they “run the risk of placing their hands in that state’s spilt blood.”

On the whole, The People’s Peace effectively explains the idea of peace polling, and makes a strong case for its usefulness by drawing on the positive experience of how such polls contributed to the Good Friday accords in Northern Ireland. By the author’s own admission, the book also shows how and why peace polling has failed, such as in Darfur and Sri Lanka. Hopefully, lessons learned can be applied in other contexts in order to help prepare for peace. To that end, the author has included a useful guidance note (which was originally prepared for the UN Department of Political Affairs) on how to carry out public opinion and peace polling.

Walter Kemp is the Director of the Europe and Central Asia program at the International Peace Institute in Vienna