Peace Polling Can Prepare Ground for Mediation

On December 16, IPI Vienna hosted a meeting on peace polling with keynote speaker Colin Irwin of the University of Liverpool. Peace polls are public opinion polls designed to test a series of questions and seek to identify common ground on which a peace process can move forward. Unlike market surveys or binary polls designed to give a yes or no answer, peace polls present a range of choices from “essential” on one side to “unacceptable” on the other, with “desirable, “acceptable” and “tolerable” options in-between. In such a way, red lines become evident, but so too do possible second choices around which compromise can be sought.

The process of peace polling can be considered a confidence-building measure. All stakeholders, including adversaries, are invited to draft suitable questions, and also take part in analyzing the results. This encourages their buy-in to the process, and makes it harder for them to dismiss the results.

Irwin described peace polling as a way of “bringing the people to the negotiating table.” He also explained that it is a useful way of testing policy options that can prepare the ground for mediation. Peace polls can disprove a leader’s assertion that his or her people do not support a particular policy. Conversely, they can be used to prepare the public for proposals that have been agreed behind closed doors. In both respects, peace polls can play a vital role in “ripening” a peace process through public policy. It also makes peace processes more inclusive.

Peace polling was used extensively, and successfully, in the Northern Ireland peace process. The methodology was also applied in the Balkans, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Darfur, and the Middle East. Irwin sees great potential for the technique to be applied in Syria.

Irwin’s interest in peace polling stems in large part from a decade that he spent living with the Inuit in the Canadian Artic. He explained how Inuit councils deliberate until there is consensus. A mediator listens to the divergent views and then seeks a solution acceptable to all. All parties may not get what they want, but they will at least get what they need.

Participants discussed how peace polling could be applied to the so-called “frozen” conflicts in the OSCE area.

Colin Irwin’s book The People’s Peace is available here: