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How to resolve Brexit!

Colin Irwin   Sat 06 Apr 2019   updated: Thu 19 Sep 2019

Watch the talk on how to resolve Brexit on the Worldwide Wednesday YouTube Channel here:

Did Brexit need a Peace Poll?

‘Did Brexit need a Peace Poll?’ compares two deeply divided societies. Northern Ireland where peace was achieved between Protestants and Catholics in the 1990s, and Brexit Britain where ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ continue to be ‘at war’ over the UK’s relationship with the EU. Dr Colin Irwin explains how the politicians used conflict resolution best practice in Northern Ireland to test all their options for peace against public opinion and achieve the Good Friday Agreement. But in Brexit Britain these lessons from Northern Ireland were ignored by Prime Minister May who insisted on ‘her deal or no deal’ with disastrous results.

Download the WAPOR Paper:

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Did Brexit need a Peace Poll WAPOR

Yes – Brexit did need a peace poll

Colin Irwin   Wed 20 Mar 2019   updated: Tue 23 Apr 2019

Prime Ministers are always concerned about their legacy and how history will regard them after they have left office. For Prime Minister Tony Blair his most significant policy failure was the Iraq War and for David Cameron it was losing the EU referendum. For Prime Minister May, above every thing else, she did not want to be remembered as the Prime Minister that split the Conservative Party condemning them to years in opposition or split the Union with the loss of Scotland or Northern Ireland. So she wanted a EU Withdrawal Agreement that would satisfy Conservative MP ERG Leavers while also avoiding a second EU referendum that might be a prelude to a second Scottish referendum in which the Scots would vote for independence and continued EU membership. So both a national consensus Norway style deal and/or a People’s Vote were never going to be her preferred policy options. It was her deal or no deal. The Prime Minister’s interests and the interests of the Conservative Party were placed above the national interest and in this context research and research funding was dominated by the NGOs that supported the Remain and Leave camps and by the agenda of Prime Minister May’s Government. Support for a national consensus would only come when and if the Prime Minister’s option totally failed. On Tuesday the 12th of March, the Government’s proposals for leaving the EU were voted down for a second time by a margin of 149 votes and the Prime Minister in her statement to the House of Commons said the other options of no deal, a second referendum or some form of soft Brexit were now “choices that must be faced.” Clearly public opinion research and public diplomacy was now needed in support of this new agenda and on March 20th May’s Government asked the EU for an extension to Article 50 which would give time for such research.

The five short articles and three Brexit pilot peace polls published on The UK in a Changing Europe website were restricted to the format for Google Surveys. On the plus side they were very inexpensive and easy to run but were limited in style and word length as they were run on an Android app platform. Significantly the questions were also limited to blocks of ten short questions. However, the questionnaire, In Search of a Settlement, used to detail all the elements of the Northern Ireland Belfast Agreement contained 252 questions and was run as a small booklet in face-to-face interviews (Irwin, 2002). None of the polling done in an effort to resolve Brexit was undertaken to this level of sophistication to detail all the possibilities for the future arrangements for the UK and EU because that was not part of the Withdrawal Agreement. But this bridge now has to be crossed with all the possibilities for trading and other social and security arrangements being tested against public opinion ranging from World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreements, to Canada-style deals, to a Customs Union and/or Single Market arrangements, similar to a Norway-style deal with perhaps elements taken from existing European Economic Area (EEA) and European Free Trade Area (EFTA) treaties to produce some kind of European Community 2.0 type deal, or more, or less? (For recent reviews on these options see Wallace, 2019 and Trefgarne 2019). The A New Framework Agreement (1995) was used to set an agenda for both the In Search of a Settlement Northern Ireland peace poll and subsequent Belfast Agreement. Similarly the Political Declaration (2018) can do the same for a UK/EU agreement with each element unpacked and tested against public opinion for all the possible options available.

This was not done to resolve Brexit because the Government only wanted their deal and no other deal. But that is ‘water under the bridge now’ and in an effort to mitigate the inevitable Parliamentary party political dysfunction over the future UK/EU relationship a programme of research that addresses all these issues should be undertaken proactively with willing Parliamentarians, as was done in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the hundreds of polls on Brexit that are in the public domain are, to some extent, just the tip of the iceberg of the polling completed with significant amounts of polling undertaken privately by the major political parties and UK Government. But the degree of sophistication achieved in Northern Ireland by engaging with the politicians from all the parties elected to the negotiations has never been duplicated elsewhere and, most importantly, all the results of all those peace polls were made public to both inform the public and bring the public with the politicians to an agreed consensus on the way forward. The same now needs to be done for Brexit. Critically, such public diplomacy peace polling will not only inform the British public and their elected representatives what they want but also those in Brussels and across the EU with whom the future arrangements have to be negotiated. To date the Brexit negotiations have been a resounding failure consuming and paralysing Parliamentary politics to the exclusion of other domestic and foreign policy issues that should have rightfully been addressed since the referendum of 2016. This paradigm needs to change with the future research serving the needs of the nation, not the government alone and not the narrow interests of Leave or Remain lobbyists.

Indicative Votes

On Monday March 25th amendment (a) moved by Sir Oliver Letwin in the House of Commons was passed by 329 votes in favour to 302 votes against and the main Motion (as thereby amended) was then passed with 327 votes in favour to 300 against. It provided for a procedure to allow ‘the House to debate and vote on alternative ways forward, with a view to the Government putting forward a plan for the House to debate and vote on…’ This was done to allow MPs to complete a series of ‘Indicative Votes’ on options chosen by the Speaker of the House that reflected the kinds of options for resolving Brexit tested here. However, the methods used here are designed to ‘square the circle’ between the wishes and opinions of Parliamentarians and the wishes and opinions of the people they represent. It has not been used to provide Parliamentarians with a method of voting for various options although it would be most interesting to try it and see how it worked out. Accordingly, in the first instance, Parliament should use voting methods they are familiar with and trust.

To this end, Sir Oliver Letwin suggested in the debate leading up to the vote on his amendment that the first vote should be for Members’ first choice only, to discover and reveal the political topography of the House on all the options available. This seemed to be most sensible but then, as several members pointed out and as the research reviewed here indicates, this might not bring the House to a resolution of the issues at hand and certainly would not identify the best possible compromise. With this point in mind the voting system used in the House of Commons to select Members of Select Committees was proposed but there was then some discussion as to how many options should be rank ordered to do this. Again experience from Northern Ireland might help here where those Members are familiar with the single transferable vote system (STV) that allows any number of candidate options to be rank ordered as illustrated in Table 1.

In the Northern Ireland Assembly Members there can also designate their political identity as Unionist, Nationalist or Other. Similarly Members of the House of Commons could designate themselves as Leavers or Remainers having voted Leave or Remain in the 2016 referendum. A conflict resolution analysis from this perspective, as well as political party analysis, would also be most revealing and as an academic exercise would have been tried if research funding for such an exercise had been made available in 2018. It would also be interesting to see how such a method, analysis and outcome would compare with Members noting the value of each option on the five point ‘essential’, ‘desirable’, ‘acceptable’, ‘tolerable’ and ‘unacceptable’ scale used in Northern Ireland and around the world. Even if this is not done to help resolve these issues in Parliament it still can be done for all the issues that remain unresolved and are yet to be negotiated and settled between the UK and EU as was done in Northern Ireland between Unionists, Nationalists and Others. Finally, it should be remembered, to take one more lesson from Northern Ireland, that the Belfast Agreement was tested in a referendum to give it political legitimacy. Likewise the Brexit peace process may still have some way to go.

In the first Indicative Vote held on Wednesday March 27th 16 motions were proposed and 8 selected by the Speaker of the House of Commons. These are listed in Table 12 along with the results for the three attempts by the Government to pass their Withdrawal Bill. The motions rejected by the Speaker tended to be duplicates of those selected, or ‘aspirational’ motions such as ‘(A) Constitutional and accountable government’ which in public opinion terms would be characterised as ‘motherhood and apple pie’ and therefore meaningless, or items that could not be realised as they had already been rejected in negotiations. Parliamentarians were characterising these motions as ‘unicorns’.

The two motions that came closest to passing were a ‘customs union’ having lost by only 8 votes, and a ‘confirmatory public vote’, which lost by 27 votes. Both of these motions failed by fewer votes than the Government’s Withdrawal Bill, which, even on its third attempt lost by 58 votes. In Northern Ireland this outcome would have been seen as a clear victory for potential compromise and a way forward. But the UK public had not been properly prepared for Indicative Votes with a programme of public opinion research and public diplomacy so even The Guardian (2019), a liberal newspaper, reported this outcome as a failure with the headline “Parliament finally has its say: No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No” and “Commons rejects all eight alternatives in indicative votes” when in fact it was a success to be built on from a conflict resolution perspective.

This supposed political ‘failure’ was further reinforced by Sir John Curtice (2019) in his review of public opinion polling on the Common Market 2.0 or Norway-style Brexit option published on March 29th. Critically he selectively cited data that supported his conclusion that “a Norway-style Brexit could find itself in much the same position as Mrs May’s deal proved to be – with few friends who are willing to take it to heart” while ignoring research that came to the conclusion that it was potentially the most preferred Brexit outcome (Grant et al 2018). But the Government failed to support this compromise when it was brought to the House for a second time on April 1st. However with Labour Party support it now lost by only 21 votes while the Customs Union proposal narrowly lost by only 3 votes (Table 13). Accordingly the proposer of the Common Market 2.0 compromise, Nick Boles MP, resigned from his party and joined the opposition benches.


On April 2nd, following an eight hour cabinet meeting Prime Minister May announced that she would now seek to negotiate a compromise to her Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, with the Opposition, in an effort to draft legislation that would pass in the House and facilitate the UK leaving the EU. But the polarised politics of the past two years had not prepared the British public for that compromise and the research and polling community had similarly failed in this regard. In this context the ‘Father of the House’ (its longest standing Member) Ken Clarke MP (2019) recommended that the country now needed a long extension so as not to rush the negotiations for new arrangements between the UK and EU and also to start to mend relations between Leavers and Remainers in both Parliament and the wider UK public.

When Theresa May lost her majority in the House of Commons in the General Election of 2017 she was advised by her Conservative Party Chief Whip, Julian Smith MP (2019) that she should seek a compromise on her Brexit deal if it was to pass in the House of Commons. But she did not, believing that by will of personality she could overcome the facts of Parliamentary arithmetic. Such misplaced self-confidence and hubris is characteristic of many political leaders that ‘soldier on’ against the realities of their circumstances, unwilling to compromise with opposition forces in numerous unresolved conflicts around the world. In the end all such politicians and their societies have to come to terms with the necessities of managed conflict resolution or remain destined to become frozen conflicts. Arguably the divisions over Europe in the British Conservative Party are a frozen conflict and until that fact is recognised and addressed history may continue to repeat itself with ethnic entrepreneurs in the body politic all too willing to play the populist, narrow nationalist, ‘identity card’ for short term electoral advantage.

On April 10th the European Union granted Britain an extension until October 31st 2019. But in the context of contested EU elections on May 23rd the prospect of using that extension to mend the divisions between Leavers and Remainers would be more than problematic. A longer extension was probably needed to undo the damage done over the past several years (Renwick, 2019). But even so the prospect of using Citizens Assemblies (Jayanetti, 2019) and peace polls to mend those divisions would be very challenging in the absence of a proactive approach to conflict resolution. In Northern Ireland the British and Irish Governments opposed the use of independent peace polling there, but the ten political parties elected to negotiate the Good Friday Agreement overruled the two governments in their negotiations business committee and went ahead with the peace polls against the two governments wishes. Similarly the Parliamentarians in Westminster should form an all-party business committee (Lucas, 2019) in the House of Commons to manage and implement a programme of Brexit reconciliation, and by taking ownership of it ensure its success in the National interest. Finally the EU should complement these efforts with a programme of their own to deal with the negative effects of identity politics at the core of Brexit politics in the UK and elsewhere. Like Britain the EU had experimented with Citizens Assemblies (Butcher and Stratulat, 2018), but like the UK they had also prevented those researchers from running and publishing effective peace polls (EUSurvey, 2019) . Objective independent polling and transparency is needed on both sides of the Channel.

For tables, data, references and a full analysis download the attached WAPOR paper.

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Did Brexit need a Peace Poll WAPOR

Brexit: Finding the best possible compromise

Colin Irwin   Fri 22 Feb 2019

When politicians fail to bring peace to their society ravaged by the forces of bloody conflict they always blame ‘the people’ saying they wanted a deal that would bring peace but that ‘their people’ could not accept it. Most of the time such claims are lies, people generally do want peace and all the benefits that flow from peace and the problem really is that the peace deal ‘on the table’ is not in the interests of the political elites and their allies charged with negotiating a peace agreement. And so goes the world (1), is Brexit any different?

This is an empirical question. What compromise on Brexit could the people of the United Kingdom accept given the political will of their leaderships to take them down that road? In my first Brexit pilot peace poll I tested the views of Leavers against Remainers using the conflict resolution techniques that worked so well in Northern Ireland (2). But in the UK it is not the Protestant/Unionists and Catholic/Republicans that have to make peace it is the Conservative and Labour Party supporters. So in my second Brexit pilot peace poll I asked what political party the informant generally supported in addition to their preference to leave or remain in the European Union. Table I (in attached pdf below) lists the results for Leavers and Remainers and Table 2 lists the results for Conservative and Labour Party supporters for eight different options: the PMs Withdrawal Agreement, No-Deal, a Permanent Customs Union, a Norway-Style Deal, a Canada-Style Deal, Remaining in the EU, a Compromise Agreement, and a ‘People’s Vote’ Referendum.

As with the first pilot the individual results can not be taken too seriously as the sample contains only one hundred interviews using Google Surveys and the level of ‘No Answer’ is rather high. But this problem can be mitigated by not looking at the raw per cent results but rather at the rank order of the results. In my experience when working on conflicts these rank orders do not change very much between small difficult to get samples and larger samples providing the samples are representative of the groups being compared. This is done in Table 3 (see attached pdf file) for Conservative and Leave voters and for Labour and Remain voters and the results are very revealing.

For the Labour party supporters the top three priorities are ‘Remain in EU’, a ‘’Customs Union’ and a ‘People’s Vote’ with a ‘Norway-Style Deal’ and some sort of ‘Compromise Deal’ fourth and fifth. The pattern of the rank order for Remainers is almost identical with a ‘People’s Vote’ and ‘Remain in EU’ first and second but with a ‘Customs Union’ now down to fourth perhaps because, for Labour voters, a ‘Customs Union’ is party policy and that is why it is second on their list. Significantly ‘No Deal’ and the ‘PMs Deal’ is at the bottom of both the Labour party and Remainers lists with a ‘Canada-Style Deal’ just above them at sixth position.

However, a ‘Canada-Style Deal’ is first on both the Conservative and Leave lists this being the preferred option for so-called hard line Brexiters. So not much chance of a compromise there. But the second choice for Conservatives is a ‘Compromise Deal’ and for them this would be the ‘PMs Deal’ third or a ‘Norway-Style Deal’ fourth. Interestingly the ‘PMs Deal’ drops to fifth place in the Leavers list as they are not always loyal Conservatives and hard line Leavers are content with ‘No Deal’ which is second on their list behind a ‘Canada-Style Deal’. Significantly a ‘Norway-Style Deal’ is fourth on both the Leavers and Conservative lists and also fourth on the Labour list so, if this were a conflict resolution exercise to stop a violent conflict, then I would conclude that a ‘Norway-Style Deal’ could form the basis for a compromise peace agreement. Interestingly Grant, Rohr, Howarth, Lu and Pollitt (3) come to essentially the same conclusion in their study of these issues using a cost benefit analysis approach. Given that these rather different methodologies come to the same conclusion perhaps the results of these analysis should be taken more seriously as a solution to the Brexit problem now.

Another approach to resolving this problem proposed by a number of Labour and Conservative party MPs is to combine the top preference for Labour party supporters with one of the top preferences for the Conservative party supporters namely a ‘People’s Vote’ to remain in the EU against the ‘PMs Deal’ approved in the House of Commons (4). From a conflict resolution perspective, in a ‘fighting killing war’ this strategy probably would not work as we could not expect the parties to that war to respect the result. But it might work for Brexit. Certainly it is worth a try and if it doesn’t work and if everyone is still dissatisfied with the result then they can always fall back on the ‘Norway-Style Deal’ compromise.

Google Survey Data Files:

This Brexit Pilot Peace Poll was collected between 17 February and 19 February, 2019. The full data files for all three of these polls are available here:


(1) Irwin, C. J., (2012) The People’s Peace, CreateSpace, CA. Available at:

(2) Irwin, C. J., (2019) A way through the Brexit impasse? a Brexit pilot peace poll, The UK in a Changing Europe, 7 February. Available at:

(3) Grant J., Rohr C., Howarth D., Lu H and Pollitt A., (2018) What sort of Brexit do the British people want? The Policy Institute at King’s and RAND Europe. Available at:

(4) Helm, T., (2019) Back May’s deal, then hold people’s vote: plan to end Brexit deadlock, The Guardian, Saturday 9 February. Available at:

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Brexit Compromise

A Brexit Pilot Peace Poll

Colin Irwin   Mon 04 Feb 2019   updated: Mon 11 Feb 2019

In my series of blogs on Brexit I have suggested that Brexit needed a peace poll (1), that much of the polling done on Brexit was partisan and misleading (2), and that as Brexit was creating deep divisions in UK society pollsters should use conflict resolution best practice to analyse their data (3). With this point in mind I have completed a Brexit peace poll pilot to illustrate how this can be done.

Firstly the questions in a peace poll should be agreed and drafted with the cooperation of the parties to the conflict. In this case that should be the Parliamentarians elected to the House of Commons. But for the purposes of this pilot I have simply taken the relevant items from the House of Commons Order Paper No. 239 Part 1 that lists the Governments European Union (Withdrawal) Act, and all the amendments proposed by Parliamentarians (page 26-38) for selection by the Speaker on Tuesday the 29th of January.

From a conflict resolution/negotiations perspective this Act and amendments can be loosely characterised as being ‘substantive’ elements of an agreement or ‘procedural’ elements for getting to an agreement. Using Google Surveys I was able to test nine solutions for resolving Brexit against each other, with a tenth question asking the informant if they would vote ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ if a referendum was held today (Table 1 in pdf below). I would then be able to compare the opinions of Leavers and Remainers on these issues, and see if a compromise could be found anywhere, that they might be able to agree to. The same was done for nine procedural issues (Table 2 in pdf below).

From Table 1 we can see Leavers do not want to stay in the European Union at 79.9 per cent ‘unacceptable’, while Remainers do not want to leave the EU without an agreement at 71.8 per cent ‘unacceptable’, and Leavers do not want a referendum to leave or remain in the European Union at 81.8 per cent ‘unacceptable’. So nothing to agree to there at this time. But if we take a look at the other end of this five point scale, at what Remainers and Leavers consider to be ‘essential’ (Table 3 in pdf below) then we get a slightly different picture. The number one priority for Remainers is ‘a permanent customs union for trade with the EU, strong relationship with the single market, shared institutions and alignment on rights and standards’ at 47.6 per cent ‘essential’. The same item is third on the Leavers list at 17.5 per cent ‘essential’ but significantly it is only 20.2 per cent ‘unacceptable’ so perhaps something can be done with this.

Other options include a Canada-style deal and a Norway-style deal and they are possibly ‘doable’ but they presently require a Northern Ireland backstop which Leavers want removed at 45.4 per cent ‘essential’ while Remainers consider it ‘unacceptable’ at 26.8 per cent. On the other hand the ‘permanent customs union’ approach does not need a backstop so perhaps this is ‘the lesser of the evils’ in this case given its otherwise more general ‘acceptance’ by Leavers’ at 30.8 per cent.

With regards to the procedural issues (Table 4 in pdf below) it is interesting to note that Remainers do want them ranging from a high of 45.5 per cent ‘essential’ for a vote on any deal agreed to by MPs, to 42.7 per cent for MPs to vote on various deals (an Indicative Vote) to ‘ruling out a no-deal scenario and preparing for a People’s Vote with an option to remain in the European Union’ at 41.9 per cent ‘essential’. When phrased in this way Leavers consider this form of referendum to be 55.6 per cent ‘desirable’ so if the Brexit process has to go ‘down this road’ then perhaps this is the way to go. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Leavers are far less enthusiastic about the various procedural options on offer as they want Brexit and presently it is the law.

This Google survey of 100 interviews was collected between February 2 and February 4. It is only a pilot costing a very modest £160. Clearly a larger survey is needed with input from the Parliamentarians who wrote the draft law and amendments tested here. I am a little concerned that my “Remain’ or ‘Leave’ question got such a high ‘Remain’ response so I do not think that result or the general result for the UK population as a whole should be cited here. But comparing the opinions of Remainers and Leavers as ‘indicative’ of what is happening to opinion is valid and I doubt if a more thorough survey would come to conclusions very different to the ones I have drawn here.

Although the pilot only has an N=100 sample I am used to working with small samples around the world as I am generally working on conflicts where such samples are often very hard to get. The thing then is to know what one can draw conclusions from and what one can not. With this point in mind although the overall sample may not be as good as we would like by taking out the most polarised groups (in Northern Ireland Protestants and Catholics for example and in Brexit Britain Remainers and Leavers) we can compare the differences between these two groups with some certainty.

I was thinking of running the pilot again for political party breakdown to compare Labour and Conservative supporters. But the results would not be so definitive in this case as some Conservatives are Remainers and some Labour Party supporters are Leavers. So to do this I think we really do need a much better sample.

Also there is a problem with the Google Programme. I had to include “I prefer not to answer’ in every question up front so the 'No Answers' are a bit high. It is possible that quite a lot of Leavers said they ‘Prefer not to answer’ in question one and that is why the Leave result is a bit low. This problem can be overcome by using ’stock’ questions on this issue that have been tested by various polling companies and that are know to work well.

So I think the poll should be run with a better sample and questions and that comparisons should be made between political parties as well as Remainers and Leavers. Inevitably the Conservatives and Labour Party supporters will be closer on all the issues tested here than the Remainers and Leavers.

Finally I should add that the level of ‘unacceptable’ for Protestants for the Power Sharing option that became the Belfast Agreement was 52 per cent (Table 5). But I suspect that Conservative ‘unacceptable’ for a permanent customs union would be less than 20 per cent so resolving Brexit is a ‘walk in the park’ compared to doing the Belfast Agreement! And the other options such as a Norway-style deal are almost as equally acceptable. But I did not want to say too much about this from the pilot as these similarities are all within the margins of error. So someone really should run these polls again to the best possible polling standards with a bigger sample!

The results for the Brexit Substance Pilot poll can be viewed here:

And the results for the Brexit Process Pilot poll here:

And the data files for both polls are available here:

Finally a free book on peace polling is available here:





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A Brexit Pilot Peace Poll Updated

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

In the heated discussion leading up to the Meaningful Vote scheduled for Tuesday the 11th of December the Express reported, from an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, that the ‘Brexiteer Gisela Stuart masterfully shut down Remain campaigner Gina Miller after she suggested there is now increased support for a second Brexit referendum’ (Bosotti 2018). Gina Miller cited a poll published in the Independent that said ‘People were... for a new referendum by 46 per cent to 30 per cent’ (Watts 2018), while Gisela Stuart cited research undertaken for Change Britain noting that “The public want their MPs to vote against a second referendum” by 51 per cent to 45 per cent (BMG Research 2018). Additionally the Change Britain research also claimed a ‘Canada Plus’ agreement was the most ‘strongly preferred’ outcome while the Independent said a ‘Majority of country now think Britain should remain in the EU’. Remarkably BOTH the Independent poll and the poll for Change Britain were carried out by the same company BMG Research. How can this be and how are Parliamentarians supposed to make sense of these diametrically opposed conclusions, and in so doing make what may be the most important decision of their political careers to guide the country forward for generations to come?

The Northern Ireland peace process was far too important to leave the public opinion research in the hands of partisan organisations and pollsters who would bias the questions, methodologies and analysis to fit their client’s agenda. In Northern Ireland a programme of independently funded academic polling research (Irwin 2012) was undertaken as a partnership between the Queen’s University of Belfast and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Critically this research was also undertaken with input from all the parties to the negotiations to ensure objectivity so that the results would be taken seriously and acted on. Clearly Brexit now needs the same approach. So what has gone wrong with the polling undertaken by BMG Research and others, and how can it be corrected?

Firstly, with regards to support for a second referendum the result depends not only on when the poll was run but also on the question asked. For example Lord Ashcroft (2018) in his November poll asked ‘Should there be a second referendum, to decide between leaving the EU on terms agreed in the draft Brexit agreement, or remaining in the EU?’ resulting in 38 per cent ‘yes’ and 47 per cent ‘no’ because this question disenfranchises ‘leave’ voters. Conversely when asked ‘Should there be a second referendum, to decide between leaving the EU on terms agreed in the draft Brexit agreement, or leaving without a deal?’ the result is only 31 per cent ‘yes’ and 50 per cent ‘no’ because this question disenfranchises remain voters. However, in a Survation poll (Walters 2018) also run in November the result was 48 per cent in support of a ‘People’s vote – a referendum – asking the public their view?’ and only 34 per cent opposed. In Northern Ireland and around the world people generally like to exercise their franchise and critically the Survation question does not disenfranchise anyone. Implicitly both remainers and leavers are invited to express ‘their view’. Interestingly the BMG Research question gets a result somewhere in-between the Lord Ashcroft and Survation questions as they ask ‘If there is a vote, should your MP vote FOR or AGAINST another referendum on whether to leave or remain in the EU? with an additional option for their MP to abstain.

These very different results now make sense and the correct approach to dealing with this issue is to either have the stakeholders, the Parliamentarians collectively agree what is the correct question to ask or, alternatively, run the various alternate questions and then have a discussion as to why they produce different results. That is the discussion that should have taken place between Gisela Stuart and Gina Miller on the Andrew Marr show, but didn’t, and an opportunity to enlighten the public was lost. Statistics do not have to be lies they simply have to be understood. But what about the BMG Research result in the Independent that suggests the British public want to remain in the EU and their poll for Change Britain that suggests, given a choice, the British public would choose a Canada plus deal. What is happening here?

Regrettably, the polling organisations that have tried to differentiate the British public’s preferences for different Brexit outcomes have not used best practice in both the design and analysis of their questions, pioneered in Northern Ireland and tested in a dozen other countries around the world. Firstly the options used in Northern Ireland and elsewhere were drafted by constitutional lawyers who could write both accurate and clear proposals that could be tested against public opinion, while, at the same time not leaving any important options out (Irwin 2012, page 9). The eight options tested by BMG Research do not meet these standards, e.g. No Brexit and No Brexit Plus (Clarke and Johnson 2018). Secondly BMG Research used a method that does not allow the informant to separately evaluate every option on offer against all other options by, for example, asking for only a first and last preference. Similarly although YouGov (Curtis and Smith 2018) use a simple question that asked the informant to rank order just three options, which works well with the Alternative Vote (AV) system, they then go on to analyse the same data using the Condorcet method that is far from transparent to the average reader. They would have done better to use the tried and tested methods that worked in Northern Ireland and published in the Belfast Telegraph for public diplomacy purposes (Irwin 1996/2000).

The bottom line to all of this is that the British public and MPs are not enlightened by all this public opinion research but rather find themselves frustrated by a lack of clarity, objectivity and transparency that only leads to the further confusion of Brexit in the minds of the British public. Arguably, the British Parliament has not served the British people well in resolving Brexit. Regrettably the British public opinion industry has not helped in this regard as much as they could. They could and should have done very much better. Independent research of a higher standard is required.


Ashcroft, Lord, (2018) My new Brexit poll: good for Theresa May, bad for her deal, Lord Ashcroft Polls. Friday, 23 November. Available at:

BMG Research (2018) Change Britain/BMG Poll: Deal or No Deal Understanding the Public’s Preferred Brexit Outcomes, BMG Research, Posted 10/12/18 available at:

Bosotti, A., (2018) ‘UK still wants Brexit!’ Leave activist has Gina Miller FACE FACTS challenging Remain poll, EXPRESS, Monday 10 December. Available at:

Clarke, C., and Johnson, A., (2018) We don’t need to leave the EU to control immigration, Mrs May, The UK in a Changing Europe, 20 November. Available at:

Curtis, C., and Smith, M., (2018) May’s Brexit deal leads in just two constituencies as it suffers from being everyone’s second choice, YouGov, 6 December. Available at:

Irwin, C., (1996/2000) Northern Ireland – Polls and Public Diplomacy, PeacePolls. Available at:

Irwin, C., (2012) The People’s Peace, CreateSpace, CA. Available at:

Walters, S., (2018) British people back May’s Brexit deal: Exclusive poll shows most voters back PM’s plan as the best offer for the UK, Mail Online, 27 November. Available at:

Watts, J., (2018) Majority of country now think Britain should remain in the EU, poll reveals, Independent, Sunday 9 December. Available at:

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Lies, damned lies, and [Brexit] statistics

Did Brexit need a Peace Poll?

Colin Irwin   Sat 17 Nov 2018

With the British Social Attitudes polls tracking a consistent preference to remain in the EU with only 22% choosing leave in 2015 Cameron went for a referendum in 2016 expecting to win a ‘remain’ vote (NatCen 2018 p119). But these polls failed to measure the impact of identity politics on the referendum campaign in the hands of skilful ethnic entrepreneurs. With all the benefits of hindsight this error was corrected in their 2018 report (NatCen 2018 p137).

Inevitably, the negotiations to leave set up a dynamic that polarised public opinion around the UK/EU negotiating positions and in this context ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ supporters commissioned partisan polls in support of their separate agendas in addition to more objective tracking polls run by the major polling companies. Academic studies also tracked changes in voter preferences for a negotiated agreement (Grant et al 2018) and ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ voter priorities suggesting 40% were potential swing voters (Pagel and Cooper 2018).

However, these studies fail to take account of the political identity/emotive aspect of the choice the electorate would make in a contested referendum. Significantly, in this context if the UK and EU fail to reach an agreement in Parliament then ‘leavers’ will play the ‘blame game’ and persuade much of the 40% swing vote that the EU is not the kind of institution that the UK should be a part of. Perhaps what is needed now is a conflict resolution approach to problem solving?

As part of the Northern Ireland peace process and negotiations all the major procedural and substantive issues and decisions that had to be made were tested against public opinion with questions designed and agreed by party negotiators. With all the benefits of hindsight the same could have been done to help develop a consensus for the terms of Brexit but that is now done with the 585-page draft Brexit withdrawal agreement endorsed by Cabinet and published on 14 November 2018.

Visiting the substantive elements of this agreement with a view to amending it would not be helpful at this time. Additionally if the agreement between the UK and EU passes through Parliament then again polling on this would serve no useful purpose. However, if the agreement does not get Parliamentary backing then the Government will find themselves having to resolve a procedural problem about which there is presently no consensus.

For example should the UK leave with no deal? Or should the government ask for more time with an Article 50 extension? Should the agreement be renegotiated? Or should the government call a general election? Or should there be a second referendum (People’s Vote) and most critically of all what should the choices be for such a referendum and with what wording? In the Brexit context such a scenario is particularly problematic given the ambiguous meaning of ‘no deal’.

With all these points in mind a ‘Peace Poll’ that engages with all the principal Parliamentary Brexit stakeholders to develop and test all the unresolved procedural issues, including those associated with a second referendum (franchise, timing, questions, meaning and understanding of options etc.) could help Parliamentarians reach an informed decision on procedural issues.

Additionally, it should be remembered that in Northern Ireland the parties to their peace agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, signed up to it because they had a stake in it, they took ownership of it through multiparty negotiations. So if no agreement is now reached the Government may want to take this lesson to heart and try a multiparty national consensus approach in the UK.

However, even if this withdrawal agreement is accepted in both the UK and EU Parliaments then the UK still has to negotiate their future relationship with the EU over the coming years. In this context it will also be important to mend bridges so painfully damaged by polarised negotiations between ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’, and between the UK and their Continental partners in Europe, whatever that future relationship may be. To this end all best practice in conflict resolution needs to be employed to achieve the desired outcome, including the ‘Peace Polling’ methods developed in Northern Ireland and around the world (Irwin 2002, 2012, PSR 2017).


Grant J., Rohr C., Howarth D., Lu H and Pollitt A., (2018) What sort of Brexit do the British people want? The Policy Institute at King’s and RAND Europe. Available at:

Irwin, C. J. (2002) The People’s Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Palgrave MacMillan, Basingstoke and New York and

Irwin, C. J. (2012) The People’s Peace: ‘Pax Populi, Pax Dei’ - How Peace Polls are Democratizing the Peace Making Process, CreateSpace, Scotts Valley, CA. Available at:

NatCen (2018) British Social Attitudes 35, The National Centre for Social Research, London. Available at:

Pagel C. and Cooper C. (2018) People’s Vote analysis: 40% of the public up for grabs by either side, Available at:

PSR (2017) Palestinian-Israeli Pulse, August 1, 2017. Available at:

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Did Brexit need a Peace Poll?