Although one wouldn’t normally equate Middle Eastern politics with the politics of Northern Ireland, there is more in common between Belfast and Bahrain than one would generally assume.
Both continue to suffer from political tension, a polarized society, civil unrest and street violence. However, Northern Ireland’s transition from the sectarian battleground that it once was into the mostly peaceful environment that it is today sets an example that Bahrainis and other conflict-stricken nations can learn from.
Both cases involve sectarian causes and implications; both involve one party’s struggle for higher representation and another’s struggle to combat the threat of violence and domestic militancy; and both cases involve the radical polarization of a society that is essentially homogenous.
However, one difference that must be acknowledged is that the situation in Northern Ireland reached a level of violence much higher than in Bahrain. Brutality had become a seemingly acceptable means of political expression.
Although the violence has mostly been put behind them, walking down certain streets in Belfast you would see remnants of a more bloody time. Murals, plaques and pictures in honor of “martyrs” and victims of the violence are frequently seen; buildings that had been torn apart by bombings were still waiting to be refurbished; and “peace walls” continue to separate some of the Catholic and Protestant communities.
One Belfast resident describes the Troubles in Northern Ireland as a deadly and continuous cycle. A group that feels undermined and oppressed will use that reason to justify the use violence and hostility towards the group they perceive to be the source of their oppression. This behavior will cause the opposing group to feel threatened and intimidated, which they will then use to justify the use of force in order neutralize the threat.
The use of force will increase the first group’s sense of injustice, which will then cause them to use more violence in response. The increase in violence then causes the second group to feel increasingly threatened and thus increase their use of force to counter to the growing threat.
And the cycle will violently go on until one group obliterates the other, or until both groups’ desire for peace and willingness to compromise surpasses their political aspirations.
Although this may seem like a very simple analogy, it is also quite true. Bahrain is currently stuck in a similar cycle of violence and force, which has become increasingly apparent recently. Rather than falling deeper into this sequence of tit-for-tat, Bahrainis should work to avoid prolonging the unrest.
Although Bahrain has not experienced the levels of violence and bloodshed witnessed in Northern Ireland, it should be recognized that the situation does indeed carry the potential to escalate rapidly if the root causes of the unrest are not immediately addressed, particularly after the escalation in street violence and the use of car bombs (made famous by the IRA) that has left several policemen and rioters dead or injured in recent months.
The recent death of two youths while driving a car they had rigged with explosives should also act as indicator that youth in opposition constituencies are becoming increasingly radicalized and resorting to increasingly violent tactics.
The solution to the Northern Ireland’s Troubles came, more or less, through dialogue. Although Republicans and Loyalists still do not see eye to eye on most issues, both groups were willing to make the necessary compromises that allowed them sit face to face and discuss what actions would be in Northern Ireland’s best interests.
These talks amounted to the formation of the Good Friday peace agreement, and talks continue to be held today on several unresolved issues. Many of those directly affected by the Troubles have yet to find closure for their grievances, and despite continuous dialogue, many of the discussions still end up at an impasse.
However, the violence and bloodshed has mostly been put behind them thanks to progress that has been made on the common ground shared by the Republicans (Catholic) and Loyalists (Protestant) in Northern Ireland, primarily the desire for peace and coexistence.
As Bahrainis, whether Loyalists or Opposition, we should stop trying to convince others to see things from our own perspective. Rather than being stubborn about our political opinions and focusing on the differences between us, we must begin searching for the common ground upon which we can come together to build something positive for the future of all Bahrainis; the similarities that will allow us to put this dismal chapter of our history behind us.
In order to find that common ground, genuine Dialogue is necessary. Although the National Dialogue has seemingly come to a halt, it remains our best and only means of finding that common ground.
Although, it may not yield immediate results and may often feel like a futile initiative, with patience and perseverance, Dialogue will allow us to set aside our differences and build upon our similarities.
In the end, only hand-in-hand will Bahrainis, Loyalist and Opposition, emerge victorious from this long-drawn-out period of unrest.