by Brian Dooley
For someone Irish of my generation the most obvious associations in the Bahrain-UK relationship are those from Northern Ireland. I’m not the first person to make this comparison but the similarities are obvious. A similar sized island population of around 1.5 million shadowed by a larger dominant power that sides with the ruling elite based in Riyadh/London; generations of colonial British misrule followed by an independence of sorts that kept the very worst parts of the Empire mentality; institutional discrimination against a large part of society, a de facto two-tier citizenship with Catholics/Shias excluded from top government or security jobs, and a police force drawn overwhelmingly from the ruling sect.
Add in large numbers of political prisoners, civil/human rights movements smeared as “terrorists,” torture in custody and the targeting of human rights lawyers. You have the ruling power telling Washington to minds it own business, rigged elections that gerrymander real representation and a weird hyper loyalty to the accouterments of monarchy, be it flags or pictures of the royals.
During my visits to Bahrain in 2011 and 2012 (I’ve been effectively banned from the country since then) it struck me how alike the situations are, or at least how present day Bahrain is like the north of Ireland a generation ago. I’ve written books about the history of Northern Ireland’s politics and conflict, and can see it’s more than just the routine use of tear gas and torture in custody – it’s the accusations of loyalty to foreign powers and complicated layers of identity, the push to identify oneself primarily by sect, and how much of the struggle moved from the streets to the prisons.
This analogy also offers some grounds for optimism. After years of conflict (over 700, depending on where you take the starting pint) Northern Ireland has largely calmed since the mid-1990s, with an inclusive politics, a diversified police force, an accommodation on flags and symbols and at least a begrudging acceptance of the rights of others. “A parity of esteem” as the jargon terms it, has been established between the sects. Not everything is great, and there is a long way to go to heal the hurt of generations. But it can be done, and Bahrain needs to start.