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Bahrain Should Heed Lessons from Ireland

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Take two small island nations, each situated off the coast of a major power. Both have a history of sectarian conflict, fake democracy and misrule by monarchy. Both have a strategically important deepwater naval base. Crucially, both have a police force recruited almost exclusively from one of the sects.

Both have populations of around a million and a half, and both enjoy the dubious legacy of British colonialism and the traditions of its security apparatus.

There are differences, of course. Bahrain remains one country while Ireland was cut into two almost 90 years ago in a makeshift political solution to create Northern Ireland, which has a Protestant majority largely keen on continued British rule and loyal to the British monarch. In Northern Ireland, the fight for civil rights for Catholics (or for "parity of esteem" in modern jargon) has been conducted largely in the rain, cold and damp, whereas Bahrainis' struggle happens in extreme heat and sunshine.

From the early 1920s, when Northern Ireland was created, the largely Protestant ruling class excluded Catholics from top government jobs, and the police force was almost exclusively Protestant, fiercely loyal to the British Protestant monarch. Electoral districts were gerrymandered to give Protestants a permanent electoral advantage even in areas like Derry, which had a Catholic majority.

In Bahrain, electoral districts are gerrymandered in favor of Sunnis, while Shias are excluded from top government jobs. The police force is almost exclusively Sunni, fiercely loyal to the Sunni monarch.

In 1968, inspired by the Prague Spring, Northern Ireland saw its first civil rights protests. A wave of pro-democracy marches and demonstrations swept Europe, from Prague to Warsaw to Belgrade to Paris and beyond. In Derry in Northern Ireland, the protests were met with a violent crackdown from the security forces. Within a year, with protests escalating, the police in Northern Ireland had to be reinforced by soldiers sent from neighboring Britain.

This year, inspired by the Arab Spring and demonstration in Tuni, Cairo and elsewhere, Bahraini pro-democracy activists organised huge protests which were met with a violent crackdown from the security forces. Within a month, with protests escalating, the police in Bahrain had to be reinforced by soldiers sent from neighboring Saudi Arabia.

We could go on, listing the similarities in the special court systems, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, the shooting of peaceful protestors, the deaths in custody, the fake shows of dialogue about power-sharing, the allegations of foreign conspiracies (led by Tehran or the Vatican), the social segregation of people living in different areas and shopping in different stores.

In neither place has the sectarianism been primarily theological. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were not killing each other over issues of transubstantiation or the rightful place of Jesus' mother Mary in the pantheon of Christian hierarchy. The sensitive issues, like in Bahrain, were about identity, 'foreignness' and allegiance to the ruling elite. In both places too there were and are many exceptions to the Catholic v Protestant, Sunni v Shia equation. Not all Protestants were anti-reform, just as many Sunnis are embarrassed at the King's intransigence and anti-democracy crackdown.

But what's most useful is to see how some progress has been made in Northern Ireland. The clumsy British response to the civil rights demands for equal access to government jobs and services and to votes pushed many of those marching for civil rights to more radical solutions.

By the early 1970s the guerrilla IRA has resurfaced, and a long war of attrition began against the British security forces. More than 3,000 people died in the following 30 years until a political deal was finally reached.

If there are parallels, it would be nice to think that Bahrain might skip the decades of killings and chaos and go straight for the solution. The reforms in Northern Ireland have not been perfect. The most difficult has been in revamping the security forces. Decades of mistrust are hard to overcome, and Catholics are still reluctant to join the police force (rebranded with a new name and symbols) that was loathed and feared for so long.

But progress has been made, and there is a sense of a shared future, not competing and conflicting versions of how the next generation will live.

If Bahrain is to learn something useful from the experience of Northern Ireland it might start by:

-accepting that these protests aren't going away without wholesale, deep-rooted reforms;
-making Shia teenagers believe they have a future in the country, and possibly a government job;
-making everyone's vote worth the same;
-stopping the manipulation of state media;
-starting to talk to opposition leaders, including those it claims are terrorists, and including those in jail;
-accepting outside mediation and support (in the case of Northern Ireland the Clinton Administration played an invaluable role):
-realizing that by refusing to share any power they risk losing it all.

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