Interview with Quintin Oliver - architect of the YES campaign in Northern Ireland
By Esra Aygin
Quintin Oliver, engineer of the successful ‘Yes’ campaign in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, told the Cyprus Weekly about the importance of public engagement in the peace process.
Cyprus Weekly: You say referendums rarely succeed. Why?
Quintin Oliver: Most referendums don’t pass because they encapsulate a difficult problem and propose change, which the people are usually apprehensive about.
CW: Are referendums good tools to decide on important national issues?
QO: Referendums need to be used very carefully. And this has been a year of terrible referendums. The voters are frustrated with politics, with the political class, the global recession, they don’t think the world is fair; and they often use referendums to register a protest. This is why we say that, sometimes, in referendums the voters are not answering the right question.
CW: What are the prospects of a peace referendum passing in Cyprus?
QO: As leaders negotiate, there needs to be a parallel public engagement process, so that the people are conscious of the issues. Public participation in peace building is very important. It is important that the public feels that they are informed. I have observed here that the debate has begun publicly about the possible terms of the agreement. My only advice would be to accelerate the breadth of that debate.
CW: So informing the public should start now?
QO: It is really important that the preparation and education work takes place now, so that the agreement does not come out of the blue, with 300 pages of technical legal jargon. Explaining all the issues during a campaign would be very difficult. You have to do some of the broad preparation before-hand, and when the people have an understanding of the issues, then the campaign can follow with the leaders finding common ground and giving unified messages. During the campaign, they should tell the people why a solution is good and explain in a credible manner the risk of voting ‘no’, without overdoing the fear factor.
CW: You have observed the current process in Cyprus. What are your thoughts?
QO: The world is watching. This is of global significance. There have been very few democratic successful resolutions of conflicts by votes, and so the world is watching. I am sensing a brewing excitement. People I talk to know that the negotiations are reaching a conclusion, they know that they will be asked to make a decision on a huge opportunity for the island and therefore they are curious, hungry, eager for information.
CW: What went wrong in the Annan Plan referendum?
QO: Everything! Why was it called the ‘Annan Plan’ or the ‘UN Plan’? It should have been a ‘plan for Cyprus’. You should root the process at home. It should have been negotiated by the parties rather than imposed by the UN, as it was perceived.