What can Bahrain learn from Northern Ireland. An essay on the eve of the 14th February

Brian Dooley’s lead

Back in September 2011, Brian Dooley, Director of Human Rights First, wrote an important article “Bahrain Should Heed Lessons from Ireland”:


This essay is a reflection of the points of similarity between the Irish experience, in particular that of Northern Ireland, and Bahrain.

There are of course important differences between Ireland and Bahrain, but this writing will focus on the similarities, and the lessons that Bahrain can learn from the Irish experiences.

Remember When….

I first thought of the similarities between the situations in Bahrain and Northern Ireland back in December 2008. This was the result of two incidents.

I lived at that time in Al Janabiya, a well-to-do professional neighbourhood with a mixed Sunni, Shia and Western expatriate population. My daughter was born on 8th December 2008 at Jidd Hafs Maternity Hospital, a state-sector hospital in a relatively deprived Shia heartland village. To get to it, I had to drive past Saar, another Shia village, through Saar West, a high-end expat residential area. At the crossroads on the road that leads from Saar to Saar West, I saw my first confrontation. At the Saar end, youths had erected barriers and were pelting the paramilitary Interior Ministry riot police with half-bricks and the occasional Molotov. The ground between the youths and the police was littered with debris, and the police were replying with baton rounds (rubber and plastic bullets), and CS gas. Masked civilians were mingling with the police, some of them armed. The scene brought memories of grainy media images of Northern Ireland crica 1968 vividly to mind.

A few days later my daughter was born, slightly prematurely by caesarian section. There were some complications, so my wife and daughter had to stay as in-patients in Jidd Hafs Maternity Hospital for ten days. I visited the hospital every day, and when my daughter was four days old there was a minor altercation between local youths and the riot police. As was often the case, the youths pelted the police, who responded by firing CS gas in an indiscriminate manner in the immediate vicinity of the hospital. Gas got into the hospital, and my daughter had to be moved to an incubator. Emotionally, this was a turning point for me, as it was at that point that I understood “in my heart”, as it were, how a large section of the population was being treated by its own government, a government that at that time was paying my salary.

The second incident, also around the time of my daughter’s birth, came when I was teaching an undergraduate 4th year elective course Postcolonial Literature for the College of Arts, University of Bahrain. Previously the course had been taught in a way that conformed to an official Arab Nationalist inspired curriculum, in which the ruling Khalifah regime had somehow fought alongside Gamal Abd Al Nasser and others in some grand pan-Arab struggle against European colonialism, with the Arabic and English literatures of the C20th somehow providing evidence for this. I decided to ditch this curriculum, which all the students knew was bunk, with something a little more contemporary. I selected a reader Quinn and Baldwin’s 2007 Anthology of Colonial and Postcolonial Short Fiction, which is divided into regional sections, “The Caribbean”, “India/Pakistan”, and so forth. I allowed students to select short texts for reading and discussion, and to my surprise the section “Ireland” was overwhelmingly the most popular, with texts like Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” (1931) and Mary Beckett’s “Belfast Woman” (1980) stimulating heated discussion. One young woman, who was to become one of Bahrain’s most prominent opposition activists, treated me and the class to a potted history of just why the Northern Ireland experience was relevant to Bahrain; after class, to loyalist young men, who would subsequently become active pro-regime baltajiyya, tried to warn me off of the subject. Never again would I perceive the teaching of literature in Bahrain to be a politically “innocent” activity.

….Reflecting on Ireland….

Reflecting on these incidents from the perspective of February 2012, with the first anniversary of the February 14th revolution approaching, I believe the lessons that can be learned from the Irish experience are more important than ever.  Put bluntly, and somewhat crudely, Northern Ireland and Bahrain are both societies in conflict, the tensions both societies have experienced stemming in large part, although not wholly, from a shared experience of British Imperialism, and subsequent “security” interests that have lasted into the C21st.

Pointedly, Northern Ireland suffered a simmering low-intensity civil war that lasted 40 years claiming thousands of lives through the murderous activities of both ethno-sectarian terrorist groups and the British and Northern Irish security forces. This conflict crippled and traumatized tens of thousands, and caused billions of pounds worth of economic damage to the UK, the Irish Republic, and above all Northern Ireland, from which the province will probably never fully recover. Before anything like a lasting settlement could be reached the conflict spread to the mainland UK, with devastating bomb attacks in London, Manchester and elsewhere over a 20 year period, with further killings in several European countries.

None of this has happened yet in Bahrain, but close resemblances to the early days of “The Troubles” and the current situation in Bahrain, combined with the general volatility of the MENA region, demand that those concerned with Bahrain look closely at Northern Ireland in order to learn lessons from that conflict which might prevents Bahrain and her neighbours from experiencing violence on a Northern Irish level, or worse.

Some background

Ireland was partly conquered by Norman knights brining English and Welsh settlers during the AD 1100s, but eventually these were assimilated into the Irish population through marriage and acculturation. Deeply proud of its Celtic Christianity, Ireland refused to accept English king Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome. The English conquered Ireland in a series of wars that lasted throughout the 1500s, enforcing English law, the English language, and the Church of England.

Most English settlement had been in central and south-east Ireland, but in the early 1600s, around the same time as England was colonizing the Americas, waves of English and Scottish settlers colonized the north-east of Ireland, hitherto the most Gaelic part of Ireland. Most of these settlers brought more extreme forms of Protestantism than that of the Church of England. This wave of settlement continued until around 1700, by which time the north-east of Ireland had a permanent Anglo-Scottish Protestant majority, who helped England to maintain control over the whole of Ireland.

Ireland achieved its independence in 1921, following a long struggle and a civil war. The 1921 settlement involved the formation of an independent Republic of Ireland (“Eire”), and the six-country province of Northern Ireland, in union with the United Kingdom. While the Protestants had been a minority in Ireland as a whole, Northern Ireland was established as a British homeland for north-east Ireland’s Protestant majority, although Northern Ireland has a large minority of Roman Catholics who tend to identify as Irish rather than British or Northern Irish. The population of Northern Ireland is around 35% Catholic, and about 65% Protestant. Catholics tend to define themselves politically as (Irish) “Nationalists”, Protestants as “Unionists”.

A small but significant minority of Catholic Northern Irish never supported the division of Ireland into two states, leading to the formation of the Irish Republican Army: freedom-fighters, guerillas, asymmetrical warriors, terrorists, organized criminals, gangsters, or psychopaths, depending on one’s perspective. The IRA, far-left Irish nationalists, were committed  to an armed struggle to undo the partition of the island of Ireland and thereby complete the project Irish unity that had been thwarted by the British.

A far larger number of Catholic Northern Irish believed they were discriminated against by the British-run Northern Irish state, and formed a Civil Rights Association in 1968, inspired by the African-American Civil Rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who had been assassinated that year. The Civil Rights Association began demonstrating for civil rights, equal opportunity, one-man-one-vote and an end to sectarianism. In response, extreme Unionists formed “Loyalist” militias and vigilante groups to harass and intimidate the Civil Rights movement.

The security forces in Northern Ireland were Royal Ulster Constabulary, a paramilitary police force that was almost entirely Protestant, and the Ulster Defense Regiment, a volunteer military force also closely associated with Protestantism and Unionism. Youth in the Catholic majority areas of Northern Ireland responded to intimidation from the Loyalist militias, the RUC and the UDR through street fighting, using rocks and molotovs. The British Army were sent in by the British government to maintain law and order, initially by protecting the Catholic areas from Loyalist attacks. However, as the violence escalated, they became increasingly associated with the Unionist cause. They were to stay in Northern Ireland until 2007.

On Sunday 30th January 1972, soldiers from the British Army’s elite Parachute Regiment opened fire on unarmed protestors at a Civil Rights march in the city the nationalists call Derry and unionists call Londonderry. Fourteen protestors were killed, and two seriously injured when they were run over by police vehicles. Prior to 1972, the IRA had been viewed by most of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland as a small group of criminally inclined extremists. Following “Bloody Sunday” large numbers of angry Catholic youth joined the IRA, rationalizing that, “If I’m going to be shot I’d rather be shot carrying a gun than carrying a banner.”

Nevertheless, the tactics used by the IRA, which included mass-murder through indiscriminate bomb attacks, raising money through organized crime, and the gangster-like intimidation of moderate elements of their own communities ensured that even at the height of the Troubles, the IRA struggled to gain the support of the majority of Catholics. Thus in a 1981 survey, people were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “The IRA are basically a bunch of criminals and murderers”, 92% or Protestants agreed with this, but so too did 66% of Catholics.

Northern Ireland has approximately the same population as Bahrain. The Troubles cost over 3,500 lives and 35,000 serious injuries, arising from 40,000 shooting incidents and 9,500 bombs, 14,000 armed robberies, and 9,000 arson attacks. Northern Ireland provides Bahrain with a dire warning of what can go wrong when a divided society goes wrong, but it ought to be able to provide insights into how to prevent things from getting that bad.

Comparison with Bahrain.

Bahrain is comparable with Bahrain in a number of regards. Both Northern Ireland and Bahrain have a history of British involvement during Imperial and colonial times through to the present day. In both Bahrain and in Ireland as a whole Britain supported representatives of a minority population as agents enabling British control of a wider region, this involved colonization in order to increase the numbers of the minority population. The Bahrain regime’s controversial “tajnees” or “political naturalization” programme of the 2000s has precedents taking back to the British control of Bahrain during the C19th and C20th. Both Bahrain and Northern Ireland are small political entities sandwiched between larger and more powerful neighbours who exert a powerful influence over the politics and society of the smaller polities. Northern Ireland is between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, Bahrain between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In both Northern Ireland and Bahrain colonial rule left behind a legacy of divided society and sectarian inequality.

Northern Ireland, the best studied “Society in Conflict”

Northern Ireland is the best-studied society-in-conflict in the world, with some 9,000 quality studies being commissioned by a very diverse range of stakeholders across a wide range of scholarly disciplines — anthropology, conflict studies, cultural studies, demographics, economics, history, law, political science, psephology, social psychology, sociology — covering six decades. For this reason alone Ireland must have much to teach Bahrain, where objective research amounts to a very small handful of studies.

The “Internal-Conflict” Paradigm: Towards a Comparative Analysis

“Orientalist” approaches to MENA Area Studies often suggest implicitly or explicitly that the region is a case apart, that what applies in much of the rest of the world either does not apply in MENA, especially in its Arabic-speaking regions, or only applies following substantial modification. While I acknowledge the value of specialist area knowledge and insight, I reject the smug and essentialist assumptions behind this “Middle Eastism”, preferring instead a comparativist approach, where insights from one context can help bring about a “paradigm shift” in the study of another.

Indeed, it was just such a study, Frank Wright’s 1987 book Northern Ireland: a Comparative Analysis, which helped bring about a paradigm shift in the way the Northern Ireland conflict was understood. Prior to Wright, there were two competing paradigms on Northern Ireland, a “Traditional Nationalist” one, which said that the conflict was purely and simply the result of British interference in Ireland, and that the conflict would end with a united Ireland, and a “Traditional Unionist” paradigm, which stated there are two different peoples in Northern Ireland, an Irish one and a British one, necessitating Northern Ireland’s union with the UK against the southern, nationalist threat.

Wright’s book helped develop a new paradigm, the “Internal-Conflict” paradigm, which instead of looking for the source of the conflict exogenously, in terms of the interests and machinations of outside powers, looked at the conflict endogenously, in terms of cultural, economic, ethnic, psychological, social, and other factors at play inside Northern Ireland’s communities. Interestingly, Wright achieved this paradigm shift through comparing the Northern Ireland conflict with similar conflicts from across the world, including the MENA region examples provided by Cyprus, Israel-Palestine, and Lebanon. It was precisely the paradigm shift from an essentialist-nationalist view of the Northern Ireland conflict to the Internal-Conflict one which enabled the cultural and psychological shifts to take place that made the subsequent Northern Ireland Peace Process possible, and the subsequent relative peace.

It is my belief that the current polarization of the conflict in Bahrain is the result of opposing and irreconcilable narratives based on essentialist, ethno-sectarian intellectual paradigms in which external powers loom large. Because these paradigms are irreconcilable, the trajectory of the Bahrain conflict will be toward an intensification of violence, unless it is possible to bring about a paradigm shift comparable to that which was achieved in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, which enabled the Peace Process of the 1990s, and the tentative, if fragile peace of the C21st. This new Bahraini paradigm will have to be an “Internal-Conflict” one, which will bring about a serious examination on the part of all parties of the purely endogenous factors that are at present providing the centrifugal energy that is tearing Bahrain apart. As the MENA region provided Wright with new insights into Northern Ireland, it is my contention that a close examination Northern Ireland can help bring about the paradigm shift that may enable Bahrain to pull back from the brink.

My source in what follows is John Whyte’s seminal book Interpreting Northern Ireland. Tragically, Whyte died suddenly on his way to a conference on Northern Ireland in New York in May 1990, days after completing the proofs of this book. Although the book is “old” it provides a comprehensive overview of research on Northern Ireland from the 1950s to the 1980s, and a snapshot of the state-of-the-art in thinking on Northern Ireland on the very eve of the paradigm shift that made peace possible. I’ll turn to post-Peace Process writing on Northern Ireland once February 14th 2012 has come and gone, and course of events in Bahrain during 2012-2013 clarifies. But for this article Whyte 1990 will be my primary point of reference.

Sectarian Labels

Firstly, Whyte questions the appropriacy of the sectarian labels used to describe the communities in conflict in Northern Ireland. It has become customary to refer to these as “Protestant and Catholic”, but Whyte makes it clear that Ireland is not a “theological” conflict, and that this terminology has a history:

In so far as there are two communities in Northern Ireland, how should they be labelled? Many authors speak of Catholic (or Roman Catholic) and Protestant. Others speak of unionist and nationalist. T.J. Pickvance proposed ulster British and Ulster Irish (1975) as the most appropriate terms, and Desmond Fennel (1983) endorsed this with the amendment of “six-county Irish” for “Ulster Irish”. The labels are not wholly interchangeable. Whilst most Catholics are Nationalists and describe themselves as “Irish” not all do; and whilst most Protestants are Unionists and would prefer to be called British rather than Irish, not all do.

Practice in the use of terminology has also varied. The first-ever region-wide opinion poll published by The Belfast Telegraph in 1967 did not use the Protestant-Catholic dichotomy, but reported separately on Presbyterians, Church of Ireland, Roman Catholics, and Others. Budge and O’Leary (1973) categorized them as Presbyterians, Church of Ireland, Other Protestants, Roman Catholics and unbelievers. Nationalist writer Frank Gallagher wrote of nationalist and unionist (1957), while pro-Unionist writer M.W. Heslinga wrote of Ulsterman and Irishman (1962). Among early authorities, Barrett and Carter were perhaps exceptional in talking of Catholic and Protestant.

As time when on, however, religious labels were used with growing frequency. The examples of Rose (1971) and Harris (1972) must be seen as significant here. As we have seen, they provided the classic attitudes survey and the classic participant-observation survey, and both have been used as reference points by subsequent scholarly writing. The fact that they both used Protestant-Catholic meant that subsequent scholars had to use the same terms if they were to compare their research with Rose and/or Harris. I cannot think of a single subsequent survey that has not used Protestant-Catholic. The same evolution has been followed by the mass-media and by politicians. In the absence of research on this I must resort to memory, but as I recall it, up until the late 1960s it was usual to talk of Nationalist and Unionist rather than Protestant and Catholic….   (pp. 18-19.)

Like “Sunni and Shia” in Bahrain “Protestant and Catholic” mask endogenous diversity within broad ethno-sectarian labels that are presented as being homogeneous blocs. As well as being a lazy kind of conceptual shorthand, the religious/sectarian classification labels reinforce essentialist ethno-confessional narratives and paradigms. They mask, for instance, other dimensions to the conflicts: social class, equality of opportunity, ownership and access to resources; representation and political legitimacy; ethnicity, origin, language and allegiance; family, clan and tribe; generation, changing gender roles, aspiration and education.

“Sunni and Shia” and “Protestant and Catholic” entrench vested interests by simplifying and trivializing complex political demands. The sectarianization of disputes enables rulers to play the “tolerance” card, pretending to rise above what they present as a sectarianized squabble while it was they themselves who sectarianized it, or playing the hard-man, posing as the only one strong enough to crush supposed sectarian treason, or calling in regional or international allies against the perceived threat posed by historical Others. Through endless repetition, “Sunni and Shia”, “Protestant and Catholic” become generalized in media, even academic discourses, eventually colouring participants’ self-identities, making sectarianism a self-fulfilling prophesy.


Whyte does not say religion played no part in Northern Ireland’s troubles. There were a handful of fanatics who did indeed see the conflict as being religious in the “theological” sense. The Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, for instance, thought in terms of an existential, indeed eschatological struggle between the Protestant True Faith and the Catholic Antichrist, “The Almighty does not make mistakes; He alone is infallible. Our presence in Ulster is no accident of history. We have a historic and divine commission…We are the defenders of Truth in this province and this island….” (qtd. In Whyte, 106). I heard almost identical rhetoric from the lips of Salafite fanatics trying to work up a crowd of Sunni students in Building S20 at the University of Bahrain, 13th March 2011.

Nevertheless, most people in Bahrain and Northern Ireland do not view their conflicts as being religious in these “theological” terms. Whyte acknowledges that religion can be a cause of conflict in two senses. Firstly, in the sense of a clash of values, lifestyles and interests related to religion. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it can be “a basis for segregating the population into two communities largely ignorant of each other and susceptible therefore to prejudice and stereotyping” (51).

Both of these factors loom large in Bahrain. If Bahrain is to heal this tendency to segregation must be recognized and exposed, from whatever source it may emerge. The regime has been particularly culpable in this regard, sectarianizing what began as a human and civil rights protest, its suppression of pro-democracy Sunnis is particularly telling in this regard. The organized opposition has been very consistent in its promotion of “Not Sunni, not Shia, just Bahraini”, but on the fringes there have been sectarian incidents in which Sunnis have been attacked for being Sunnis, as reported in the BICI report and elsewhere.

Social Class

Social class issues correspond closely with ethno-sectarian affiliation in Northern Ireland, but not absolutely. Whyte observes that “While Protestants tend to be better off than Catholics, there are enough well-to-do Catholics, and enough poor Protestants, to ensure the fit between religion and social class is very far from perfect (65). Having made this caveat, Whyte details some 46 socio-economic studies written between 1947 and 1990 that consistently show Catholics at an economic disadvantage to Protestants in terms of income, housing, access to the professions, and, most particularly in terms of unemployment, which hit the Catholic community particularly badly.

In the absence of this depth of research, I suspect the situation in Bahrain is very similar. In Northern Ireland, the relative economic deprivation of the Catholic-Nationalist community formed part of a wider historical narrative of Irish Catholic starvation, martyrdom and mass-migration across the centuries, contributing to a sense of outrage and victimhood in the present. On the Protestant-Unionist time there was a strong tendency not to acknowledge that they had treated the Catholics unfairly, at an institutional level, across historical time. “They believed themselves to be a just people, who did not do things like that” (65).

In a 1968 survey, taken just before the outbreak of hostilities, Protestants and Catholics were asked “Northern Ireland Catholics are treated unfairly, do you think this is true or not?” Seventy four percent of Catholics said this was true, 74% of Protestants said this was not. Eighteen bloody years later, the same question was asked, 68% of Catholics agreed with the statement, 67% of Protestants disagreed.  Whyte sums up saying that economic unfairness was “…as a source of perceptions differentiating the two communities, it is one of the most important in Northern Ireland” (66). From what I’ve seen among university students, in schools, and in the communities, the Bahrain situation, and the different communities’ perceptions of themselves and each other, corresponds almost perfectly. This is observational and anecdotal, but it’s more or less all there is.

A fair settlement in Bahrain would have to address at a fundamental level the historical relative depravation of much of the Shia community in housing, income, access to the professions, and above all unemployment, precisely the areas that so aggrieved the Catholic-Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. But part of this settlement would involve a commitment to cosign their sense of victimhood to history and move forward together with their Sunni neighbours.

Of course, there are Sunni and Shia who Bahrainis enjoy or endure a broadly similar socio-economic status. Such neighbours would need little persuasion to agree around “Not Shia, not Sunni. Just Bahraini”. However, upper-class Sunni families, those who are close to the current ruling family politically, historically and through kinship ties – I shan’t mention names but to be blunt, those who have a vested interest in promoting sectarianism — have a greater distance to travel. They must put aside denial and acknowledge that they have participated in systematic unfairness that has deprived so many of their Shia neighbours. The self-righteousness of “We are a just people, we simply don’t do things like that” just won’t do.


Unlike the mainland UK, Northern Ireland’s political parties tend to represent sectarian interests, there are Unionist and Nationalist parties that attract respectively mainly Protestant and Nationalist voters. There have been some centrist parties that attempt to reach out to both communities, and there have been unsuccessful attempts to launch mainstream UK parties in the province. Correspondingly, Bahrain’s “political societies” (political “parties” are not allowed) are either explicitly sectarian, or attract voters mainly along sectarian lines, with small centrist or secular parties being squeezed.


The two communities’ attitudes towards security measures differed considerably during the Troubles.

In the 1970s there were reports, later confirmed, that suspects were being tortured by the British and Northern Irish security services. At a survey taken at the time, 64% of Protestants dismissed these reports as propaganda, while only 22% of Catholics thought the same. During the 1980s the Royal Ulster Constabulary adopted a “shoot to kill” policy against terrorist suspects thought to be carrying weapons. This was supported by 61% of Protestants, but only 7% of Catholics. A poll in 1988 asked whether dentition without trial should be reintroduced (it had been British policy in Northern Ireland during the 1970s), 67% of Protestants thought that it should, but only 10% of Catholics agreed. After several Catholic children had been killed by the security forces’ use of rubber and plastic bullets, a 1985 poll asked “Do you approve of the use of rubber and plastic bullets during riots?” 86% of Protestants agreed, against a mere 9% of Catholics (Whyte, 83-88).

Clearly, the Protestant-Unionist had faith in the security forces as the legitimate upholders of law and order, and sanctioned their use of violence, even the use of illegal violence such as torture. Contrastingly, the Catholic-Nationalist community lost faith in the legitimacy of the British and Northern Irish security forces as the Troubles continued. Thus, the Northern Ireland Peace Process involved not only the verifiable “decommissioning” (destruction) of IRA weapons, but also the disbanding of the province’s sectarian police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. While the IRA was an out-and-out terrorist organization, the RUC was an integral part of the state’s law and order apparatus. Nevertheless, such was the Catholic-Nationalist community’s lack of trust in the RUC that peace could only come about with its disbanding, as if it were a terrorist organization. Thus, the RUC was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, a completely new civilian police service with a membership that directly reflected the ethno-confessional make-up of the communities it policed.

The parallels with Bahrain are very clear, while one community views the Interior Ministry Police as its defenders, and the regime lauds them as “bawwaasil”, “the noble”, the majority community condemns them as “murtazaqa”, “mercenaries”, almost as a gang in uniform, and do not recognize their right to use violence against the population on behalf of the state. Just as the RUC were almost exclusively Protestant, the Interior Ministry Police are almost exclusively Sunni, many of them brought into Bahrain from Sunni-majority parts of the Arabic-speaking world such as Jordan, or from Pakistan. This in turn reflects British colonial practice of policing their Gulf protectorates from their India Office, using sepoys from the forces of the Raj. I suspect that a key part of any eventual settlement in Bahrain will have to be the disbanding of the current police force, and its replacement with a new, civilian, non-sectarian force.

Psychological Factors

Whyte notes the intensity of feeling that the Northern Irish conflict generated, which went “beyond what is required by a rational defence of divergent interests” (94), quoting a 1971 Minority Rights Group report which stated that Northern Ireland was “a society suffering from a deep psychosis in which rational thought and action are invariably overtaken by emotional spasms as soon as it comes under stress” (94). As an outsider with good contextual knowledge and cultural and linguistic insight, I’d say something quite similar applies to Bahrain today. In particular, the extreme polarization of debate and the evaporation of a viable political centre in the current Bahrain conflict seems to go beyond what is explicable by the rational self-interest of the various contending groups on the island.

Whyte quotes Morris Frazer’s 1973 book Children in Conflict, which uses the social-psychological frustration-aggression theory to explain the emotional intensity of the Northern Ireland conflict. This theory states that ruling groups need an out-group against which to define themselves, especially in times of unpredictable change. The function of the out-group is to act as a scapegoat against which to take out the ruling groups’ frustrations. These out-groups are defined by racist, ethnic, or sectarian stereotypes, surveying stereotypes from a number of colonial and racist situations, including Apartheid South Africa, and white Southerners’ depiction of African-Americans in the Deep South of the 1950s, Frazer concludes that the stereotypes that are projected onto out-groups are remarkably similar across time, cultures, and geography: the out-grouped Other is usually described as being lazy, unemployable, treacherous, untrustworthy, they overbreed, are prone to violence and in league with external enemies.

The GCC region has undergone unprecedented social and economic change during its 50-year “oil age”, changes which affect attitudes and lifestyles in fundamental ways, undermining the traditional ties of kinship and patronage, bringing about rapid urbanization which in turn leads to the break-up of the traditional extended family, and in extension the political legitimacy of family rule. Comparable countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE have been able to ring-fence nationals’ traditional family ties and traditional family rule against urbanization and (post-)modernization at the cost of those nationals becoming demographic minorities in their own polities. For a variety of reasons, this has not happened in Bahrain, where indigenous Bahrainis of all backgrounds still constitute around 55% of the population. That GCC nationals “out-group” guest-workers in other GCC countries is fairly clear, but in Bahrain, are the ruling elite out-grouping the majority population as scapegoats in a way which goes beyond the elite’s rational defence of its group self-interest?


Whyte next considers identity as a factor in the Northern Ireland conflict, citing Henri Tajfel’s “social identity” theory, stating “Individuals belong to social groups. They also strive to maintain or advance their self-esteem. They do this largely by distinguishing their group from neighbouring groups along some dimension that makes them feel superior. This along is enough to generate competition” (97). Thus, competing identities can explain social conflict, even in situations where differing identities share largely the same culture, and have broadly similar economic self-interest. Linked with identity is the idea of belonging.

Whyte cites several studies which show that while the Catholic-Nationalist community has a fairly fixed identity, “Irish”, Protestant-Unionist identity is more complex, fluid and ambiguous. In response to different questions, Protestants would identify variously as “British”, “Ulster”, “Northern Irish”, or “Irish”. When in the company of Catholics they could be resolutely “British”, amongst mainland British people, in particular the English, they could be “Irish” or “Northern Irish”. This insecurity of identity had two effects. Firstly, in made identity of paramount, almost obsessive importance to Protestants, in a way that tended not to be the case with Catholics. Secondly, the fluidity of Unionists’ political identity made them far more likely to default to a religious based identity, “Protestant” than was the case with Catholics, for it was in their religious identity that they felt most secure (98-100).

This insecurity of identity is amplified by what Whyte calls the “double minority” model. Minorities are likely to feel threatened, people who feel threatened are likely to by hypersensitive over questions of identity and belonging. The Irish situation is a “double minority” one because in the whole of Ireland the Protestant-Unionists are a minority, yet in the Northern Irish polity the Catholic-nationalists are a minority, causing both sides to the conflict to display the hypersensitivity common to besieged minorities, with the Protestants in Northern Ireland are “a ruling establishment with the reins of power irrevocably in their hands, but acting under the stress of a besieged minority” (100). Protestant insecurity, and therefore hypersensitivity are further deepened because they are not only a minority vis-à-vis the Catholic-Nationalist Irish in Ireland as a whole, but also vis-à-vis the mainland British in the United Kingdom.

The current political geography of the Persian-Arabian Gulf in many ways fits awkwardly with the demographics and ethno-confessional realities of the region. The Gulf is a liminal zone, between Arab Arabia and nearby Persianate and Indic cultural milieus, the Arabian littoral is strongly Shiite from the south of Iraq down to Dubai while the Arabian interior is strongly Sunni, with strong Salafite-Wahhabite and tribal identities. Bahrain is the only Shia-majority  member of the GCC region in an area with very substantial Shia minorities, yet it is ruled by a Sunni elite who hail from the Arabian interior, and this perhaps otherwise unsustainable state of affairs was held in place by British power from the 1820s arguably until the present day. Whyte’s  “double minority” and “treble minority” models have clear relevance to Bahrain.

Of particular relevance to Bahrain, I feel, is Michael McDonald’s observation in Children of Wrath: Political Violence in Northern Ireland (1986), cited in Whyte, p. 103-104:

Whereas the elites of most societies would prefer full to partial legitimacy, Northern Ireland’s Protestants were threatened by the mere prospect of extended legitimacy…Protestants in Northern Ireland generally justified their political power and social privileges on the grounds of their ‘loyalty’ and Catholic ‘disloyalty’ to the established social order. The catch is that Protestant ‘loyalty’ is meaningful only in contradistinction to the ‘disloyalty’ of Catholics. Thus, Protestants, especially the more marginal ones, have developed and enduring stake in sustaining the disloyalty of Catholics, even at the cost of chronic instability and violence.

This is my fear for Bahrain, that a hypersensitive and insecure minority elite has buttressed its rule, with the connivance of Britain, though exaggerating, even creating, a supposed “disloyalty” on the part of the majority of the population, to the extent that popular demands for civil rights will be met with an escalating cycle of violence, because the ruling sees that escalation as the only viable option for the continuation of its political power and social privilege. This is what happened in Ireland, it must not be allowed to happen again in Bahrain.

Sectarianism as belonging

Whyte is at pains to point out that religious labels have a different meaning in Northern Ireland to the meaning they have elsewhere in the world, where the terms “Protestant and Catholic” involve “…a combination of historic, national, tribal, social, economic and other differences, all  subsumed beneath the heading of religious allegiance” (105). Whyte clarifies this by quoting Connor Cruise O’Brien’s 1972 book States of Ireland:

So we are brought back, inescapably, to what many people seek to deny: the rather obvious fact of a conflict between groups defined by religion. This does not mean it is a theological war. It would not even be exact to say that this is a conflict between Catholics and Protestants. It is a conflict between IRISH Catholics and ULSTER Protestants….

The actual religions – the systems of beliefs and feelings about those beliefs – cherished by Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics are distinct, in reality if not formally, from the religions of that name as practiced elsewhere.

In both cases the actual, as distinct from formal, religion is an amalgam of the strictly ecclesiastical body of doctrines and practices, and of other doctrines and practices derived from the past histories of Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics. (307-9, qtd in Whyte, 105-106)

This perhaps presents a way forward out of the Bahrain crisis. While it may benefit some parties to the conflict to pretend that what is being contested is a fundamental, “theological” clash between Shia Islam and Sunni Islam, fitting in neatly with geopolitical fears about Iran, Iranian influence, Iranian nuclear weapons, and energy security, what we are in fact seeing is a conflict between parties reflecting purely Bahraini  disputes, subsumed under wider religious labels.

Whyte next explores exactly what it is about Irish Catholics that Ulster Protestants fear. To do this he draws on a writer who is himself and Ulster Protestant, Ken Heskin. Whyte quotes from Heskin’s 1980 book Northern Ireland: a Psychological Perspective:

[There are] three main components: a fear of the Catholic Church as an organization; a fear of the Church’s power through its priests to impose its views on its members, and finally; a vague and almost primitive uneasiness towards a body which the Protestants feel is so full of mysticism, symbolism, clandestine activity (the Vatican, convents, monasteries, retreats, separate schools) and unworldly practices such as clerical chastity, monastic silence, and so forth. (29-30, qtd. In Whyte, 105-106)

There are differences between Shiaism and Catholicism, the Shia don’t have clerical chastity, for example. But taking a broader view, do we not have hear a close parallel with Sunni fears (and misunderstandings) of Shia practice? While Protestantism and Catholicism are both sects of Christianity, and Shiaism and Sunnism are both sects of Islam, might not Shiaism and Catholicism, Sunnism and Protestantism have more common with each other as a set of religious practices, perhaps even, not as religions, but as approaches to God? Protestants and Sunnis both seem to fear what they perceive as mysticism, clandestine organization, secrecy, and otherworldliness in their respective out-grouped Others.

But why, after centuries of occupying the same geographical space, do these tensions still exist, Protestant-Catholic tensions in Northern Ireland, and “Sushi” ones in Bahrain? What has, over the centuries, has prevented the communities from “getting to know” each other, through business, commerce, endogamy? After all, the “Old English”, who followed the Norman knights to Ireland in the 1100s had effectively become “Irish” by the time of the “Ulster Plantation”, the colonization, of north-western Ireland in the 1600s.

But in the Medieval British Isles, sectarianism in the modern sense didn’t exist. “In the modern sense” is important, because I think rather than representing “ancient hatreds”, there is something distinctively “modern” about sectarianism, be it intra-Christian or intra-Islamic. Before I explain just how I see sectarianism as modern, I’ll quote on the brand of sectarianism promoted by a religious politician who is extreme both in political and religious terms, the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley:

The Roman Catholic Church’s role in Paisley’s apocalyptic world view aligns her totally with the forces of tyranny, so that history necessarily involves for him a perpetual conflict between Romanism and Protestantism. The exhortations made by moderate Ulster leaders for Ulster to put her history behind her and move forward to new cooperation between Protestants and Catholics represent Satanic lies for an adherent of Paisley’s apocalyptic world view; Romanism will always be the enemy and Paisley seeks to prove this by drawing parallels between current events and past Protestant/Catholic conflicts.  (Martha Mac Iver (1987) qtd. In Whyte, 107)

Likewise, Steve Bruce says of Paisleyism “in their eyes Rome goes beyond simply offering false teaching; the Catholic Church is actively evil in that it has a history of persecuting ‘true’ Christians….” (qtd. In Whyte, 107).

We meet in the mindset of the Paisleyite Evangelical Protestants a mindset, a “world view” remarkably similar to the “loyalist” “ultras” who are threatened by the slogan “Not Sunni, Not Shia. Just Bahraini”, because, like the call of the moderate Ulster leaders mentioned above, the slogan “Not Sunni, Not Shia” calls for unity between sects and a transcending of history. Building on popular Sunni fears and misunderstandings of the Otherness of their Shia neighbours, such “ultras” undermine calls for unity by trying to focus Sunnis minds on sectarianism, emphasizing not simply that Shiism is a “false teaching”, but also that it is a perversion of Islam and is actively evil and Satanic, the eternal and existential enemy of the true Sunni faith. The “loyalty” of these “ultras” is strange in that ultimately it is a loyalty to Saudi Arabia rather than Bahrain, and because the Salafite and Wahabite ideologies they promote is as at odds with traditional Sunnism as it is with Shiism.

Cult-like, both Salafism and Wahabism, and Paisleyite Evangelical Protestantism are on the extreme margins of their respective Sunni and Protestant faith traditions. What is surprising is not that there are theologically extreme religious fanatics in either Northern Ireland or in Bahrain, but that at times of crisis they are so successful in rallying moderate (Sunni or Protestant) opinion to their causes.  Why? Whyte observes that most Protestants are not Paisleyite Evangelicals, some are liberals, many do not even attend church regularly (108), so why does this extreme sect manage to gather political support way beyond its number of adherents? Whyte observes that this is connected to identity. A purely British identity runs into the problem that most mainland British perceive Northern Ireland Protestants to be Irish, ecumenical, socialist of liberal identities diminish the difference between them and the Catholics, another way of making them Irish. However, a militantly Evangelical Protestant identity identifies them as different, and grants them a feeling of security, even among Protestants who do not in fact practice their religion (109).

Is this beginning to shine light on the problem in Bahrain? Could it be that, aside for a few fanatics, and despite the blood-curdling sectarian slogans, the vast majority of Bahraini Sunnis attending a loyalist “tajamma’” rally are there because their attendance has something to do with identity rather than religion, to do with a sense of security in a period of unpredictable change? Could it be that while generally most Bahraini Sunnis are advantaged in comparison with their Shia neighbours, most Sunni’s attendance at such rallies is not so much about a rational defen ce of their economic and social privilege, but about a hypersensitive sense of belonging born of psychological insecurity? Could it also be that these feelings are being manipulated by a small clique who really are massively privileged, vastly enriched by the existing system, manipulated in such a way as to turn the majority of Bahraini Sunnis away from a popular movement for political legitimacy and representation, human and civil rights that ought clearly to be in the best interest of all Bahrainis, not Sunni, not Shia, but all of them?

A Colonial problem?

In the C17th settlers did come over from Scotland and England and colonize Ireland in much the same way as they were doing in the Americas at that time. This produced a divided society, very similar to what existed in, say, French Algeria and Apartheid South Africa, with a privileged settler class and an indigenous population who work for them (178-179). Bahrain was part of the ancient Persian Empire the sixth century BCE to the C3rd CE. For two centuries in the early Middle Ages it was a part of the radical Ismaili Shia Qarmatian republic. It was ruled by Turkic dynasties based in Iran until it became part of the Safavid Persian Empire from 1602 until 1782, when it began to be settled by Sunni Arabian tribes from the interior of Arabia, with the Al Khalifa family arriving in 1797.

Could it be that the Shia-Persianate heritage of the majority population of Bahrain is roughly the equivalent of the Catholic-Nationalist heritage of the majority population of the island of Ireland, while the Arabian-Sunni heritage (or “bedu”, in recent rhetoric) is the equivalent of the Loyalist-Protestant one? If so, the question still remains as to why there has not been greater integration over the past two hundred years.

Part of the answer is that Britain supported minority domination in both Bahrain and in Ireland to forward its own self-interest. It is doubtful whether, without the British, Al Khalifa rule in Bahrain would have lasted to anything like the present day. In 1984 the New Ireland forum described the problem in Northern Ireland in the following terms:

The basic approach of British policy has created negative consequences. It has shown a disregard for the ethos and identity of the nationalists. In effect, it has underwritten the supremacy in Northern Ireland of the Unionist identity. Before there can be any fundamental progress Britain must re-assess its position and responsibility (qtd. in Whyte, 199).

There is something almost nostalgic about current British policy on Bahrain, as if Bahrain was one of the few remaining places left on earth where old, imperial style British “influence” and British power still applied. One could say that much the same of the long-term British expatriate community in Bahrain, to read posts on the FCO’s Facebook page UK in Bahrain is almost to be transported back into the world of, say colonial Kenya. Yet in reality, Britain’s power in the GCC region is weak, and what power exists is largely an accessory to American power. However urgently Britain needs to reassess quite what “British interest” means in the Bahrain, GCC and MENA region in the second decade of the C21st, there is no way that British power in Bahrain today can meaningfully be compared to British power in Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s.

That said, Britain was largely responsible for shaping the political geography of what is now the GCC region, and has been responsible for promoting and maintaining the privilege of one section of Bahraini society over another. Nonetheless, an explanation of, and a solution to the current Bahrain crisis needs to look beyond Britain, not least of all because sections of the section of society that Britain privileged are now looking to Saudi Arabia as a guarantor of its continued privilege and security. In this sense the Bahrain situation remains a “colonial problem”, but with Saudi Arabia waiting in the wings to play the colonial role that Britain played from 1820 until 1971 (and arguably beyond).

However, as we have seen, it is not as if the rational self-interest of all Bahraini Sunnis lay with the continuation of British interest in the C19th and C20th, nor is it with Saudi Arabia playing a colonial role in Bahrain during the C21st. The self-interest of the majority of Bahraini Sunnis is more or less identical with the self-interest of Bahraini Shia, “Not Sunni, not Shia. Just Bahraini”. What is happening is that the elite that was privileged under Britain is constructing a “loyalist” ideology by exploiting popular Sunni fears and misunderstandings, thereby gaining support for an extremist ideology that might facilitate ever closer “union” with Saudi Arabia, but is in the rational self-interest only of the elite.

Writing in 1985, the centrist Alliance party said of the political situation in Northern Ireland that:

The peculiar intractability of the Northern Ireland problem derived from its complex network of reinforcing allegiances, whereby national identity and religion, along with historical memories and socio-economic differences combine together to create powerful and antagonistic group loyalties. (qtd. In Whyte, 199)

Here we are very close to the Bahrain situation, and this takes us back to the Internal-Conflict interpretation of the Bahrain problem. The crisis will only come to an end when the different parties and constituencies stop blaming outside actors be that actor Iran, the UK, the USA or Saudi Arabia, for the situation, however deeply those actors have influenced the course of Bahrain’s history. The solution to the problem will only come when Bahrainis of different backgrounds are able to engage critically but constructively with their own histories, identities, values, and those of the Bahraini Others around them. This is not an easy process, as David Watt observer from Northern Ireland made clear in his A Constitution for Northern Ireland: Problems and Perspectives (1981):

Protestants insist on a settlement that gives them a dominant role in a British Northern Ireland, while Catholics will accept nothing less than a guaranteed share of power…..these are incompatible goals. (Qtd. In Whyte, 198).

This created some specific problems: when Unionists looked south to the Republic of Ireland they perceived a theological Catholic state into which they feared to be absorbed. The perspective of the New Ireland Forum, for example, did little to assuage unionist fears. In 1984 the Forum said:

Every legal system throughout the world bears the traces of majority opinion and of the public ethos and the majority consensus. This is true of the Protestant countries as well as the Catholic countries. It is true of non-Christian countries as it is of Christian countries. A Catholic country or its government, where there is a very substantial Catholic ethos and consensus, should not feel it necessary to apologise that its legal system, constitutional or statutory, reflects Catholic values…The rights of a minority are not more sacred than the rights of a majority. (Qtd. In Whyte, 157).

By this measure, the constitution and laws of a fully democratic Bahrain would better reflect the values of the majority population, which is Shia. Catholic bishops in both the Republic of Ireland and the province of Northern Ireland were careful address Protestant fears, as Bishop Daly of Down and Connor stressed in 1984:

The Catholic Church in Ireland totally rejects the concept of a confessional state. We have not sought and we do not seek a Catholic state for a Catholic people. We believe that the alliance of Church and state is harmful for the Church and harmful for the state. We are acutely conscious of the fears of the Northern Ireland Protestant community…What we do here and now declare with emphasis, is that we would raise our voices to resist any constitutional proposals that might infringe or might imperil the civil and religious rights and civil liberties cherished by Northern Ireland Protestants. (Qtd. In Whyte, 157)

Bishop Daly’s statement might have cut little ice with extremists such as the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, but through the 1990s a critical-constructive dialogue did manage to many of Paisley’s supporters who were not fanatics, but had bought into Paisleyism as a badge of identity in an insecure and dangerous political situation. Paisley had little choice but to heed his constituency, and despite a career devoted to staunch opposition to any move which might compromise Protestant supremacy in Northern Ireland, entered into the Peace Process. In 2007 he was elected First Minister for Northern Ireland (aged 81), sharing power with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, an ardent nationalist who had held senior positions in the IRA.

Would such a settlement be possible in Bahrain? Those who would shout “No!” should consider that for most of the past forty years the situation in Northern Ireland was more violent, more unpredictable and more polarized than it has been at any time in Bahrain. Sheikh Ali Salman and others of Al Wefaq have made assurances very similar to those given above by Daly. There are those in the Sunni community who have dismissed this in terms that recall the Ian Paisley of the 1970s and 1980s. But Paisley’s accommodation with the Peace Process in the 2000s shows that progress is possible. Intellectually, the adoption of the Internal-Conflict model as the dominant intellectual paradigm by which to understand the Troubles prepared the way for an eventual political and legal settlement. The blame-game was over, and it was time for all parties in Northern Ireland to look critically at themselves and their society.

In terms of international engagement, the support of the Clinton administration in the United States was of key importance in securing and agreement, as was the participation of international observers in overseeing the destruction of IRA and Loyalist arms.

A subsequent essay will look in more detail at the Peace Process, and examine what Bahrain might learn from this. In the meantime, I make four recommendations.

  • The sectarian narrative that has demonized the opposition in the eyes of many Sunnis must be recognized, challenged and deconstructed
  • The opposition should extend, deepen and intensify their outreach to Sunnis
  • Opportunities should be exploited to reconstruct a viable Bahraini political centre, for example a “marriage” between the opposition’s Manama Document and Dr. Ali Fakhro’s “National Encounter”
  • Where possible, the international community should support and strengthen those elements of the elite who support a strong Bahraini political centre to resolve Bahrain’s “internal-Conflict” problem, free from outside interference, especially interference from ALL external regional players.

The alternative is a Northern Ireland or a Lebanon in the heart of the Gulf. This cannot be allowed to happen. The example of Northern Ireland is a frightening warning from history, but it also helps explain what has gone wrong, and shows us a way forward.

8 thoughts on “What can Bahrain learn from Northern Ireland. An essay on the eve of the 14th February

  1. Nations that do not learn from history become history. ‘Arab Spring’ is for real, same as it was in Europe in 1845 and eventually bearing fruits of progress, freedom, human rights, happiness and prosperity.

    • Absolutely, the analogy with a changing Europe is more than apt. As with Europe in the mid-C19th, and indeed the late C20th, results won’t be instant, some changes happen quickly, others more slowly, some don’t happen at all, but perhaps should have done.

      Conspiracy theorists who say “it’s all to do with the CIA” don’t know what they are talking about, and almost certainly have not witnessed one of the uprisings first hand. Sure, governments (Russia, the USA, the UK, France, etc) try to influence outcomes in ways they deem useful to their (often short-term) interest, but the revolutions come from the people…..

  2. Dear Dr Mike
    Thank. I hope your daughter is healthy and energetic now. I like your comparison. We should learn from Ireland but I do not see any thread of light in the near future. Bahrain is like a roped treasure box being pulled from four ways. 1. The Shia want rights for Bahrain while 2. most Sunnis are scared of the Shia’s influence. 3. The ruling family does not want to loose any form of power. 4. The American, the British and the West are working to maintain their influence here. If the 1. Shia and 2. Sunnis learn from Ireland, Bahrain will win and 3. Al Khalifa and 4. the West will be useless. The healing power is in the minds and hands of the Shia and Sunni leaders. I do not think Bahrain will learn from Ireland. They will repeat the same mistakes.

    • I hope and pray that Bahrainis of all backgrounds DO learn from the experience of Northern Ireland, Abdulla. Eventually a settlement was found there, but at the cost of thousands of lives, and economic devastation from which the province will probably never recover. History exists as a science so that we don’t keep repeating the same mistakes. When we do, we are MORE, not less blameworthy than those who made the mistakes in the first place, because we ought to have learned from history, and we ought to know better. Thanks, Dr. Mike.

    • Thanks, Suhail. As you’ve said elsewhere, it’s vital that more moderate opposition and loyalist voices are able to come together and rebuild the sort of political centre needed if Bahrain is to move on. If this doesn’t happen, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. In the end that’s what happened in Northern Ireland, but only after three decades during which uncompromising extremists on both the Nationalist and Loyalist sides prevented dialogue from happening. This cost thousands of lives, tens of thousands of physical and psychological maimings, and billions in economic damaged from which Northern Ireland still has yet to recover.

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