A new initiative aimed at breaking Bahrain's political impasse, a round of dialogue sponsored by the Crown Prince, is due to start soon. Parallels between present-day Bahrain and the Northern Ireland of a generation ago are not new but there's an obvious lesson from what happened there 40 springs ago.
A few years after large-scale violence broke out in Northern Ireland the British government initiated a political dialogue with some of the opposition groups, resulting in the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. The agreement allowed the Irish government a symbolic amount of influence in Northern Ireland affairs and was part of a wider attempt to stop sectarian violence by establishing mechanism of "power sharing." While Sunningdale was successful in allowing some cabinet posts to be filled by the opposition and other small reforms, the negotiations had failed to include the full spectrum of pro-government and anti-government parties, and it collapsed after only a few months. Hardliners loyal to the British government called a general strike in early 1974 and the experiment died.
Without real democratic reform or an inclusive political agreement Northern Ireland sunk into 20 years of sectarian and other violence that took the lives of thousands. The failure to include a broader range of political voices in the negotiations, including political leaders in prison, doomed the agreement.
Eventually, in the mid-90s, another attempt was made at a political settlement in Northern Ireland, this time involving those parties who had been excluded before. It stuck. Although the deal was not perfect, it has drastically reduced the violence, reformed the police, and brought some stability.
The Clinton administration played a key part in the agreement by bringing former political prisoners in from the cold, and including others who had been frozen out of talks by the British government. The Obama administration could do the same in Bahrain by urging a broader spectrum of opposition be involved in the new dialogue and recognizing some of those in jail as legitimate political figures.
Unless Bahrain broadens the range of political leadership in the talks, it risks another Sunningdale, where those unrepresented in the dialogue don't feel bound to uphold it. Without the input of key voices, Sunningdale was too weak to deliver reform on the sensitive issues of detention without due process and police abuse. Sound familiar?
The Bahrain government insists it is already reforming, earlier this month claiming the cabinet had "gone beyond" implementing the recommendations of the independent commission that investigated its violent crackdown in 2011. But its most recent report on how much progress has been made is unpersuasive. "Moving Beyond 2011" is a hodgepodge of dubious evidence that lists lots of training that its judicial and security officials have undergone without demonstrating that it has changed behavior. It shows paper advances in protecting the freedom of expression without mentioning that people are now jailed for insulting the king on Twitter. It outlines how new Ombudsman offices are working without detailing any cases that they have brought to resolution. It notes that Amnesty and Human Rights Watch were allowed into Bahrain in early 2013 but fails to mention that they nor Human Rights First have been granted access to the country for over a year.
Suggested evidence of progress in "Moving Beyond 2011" also includes a "Camels of Unity" project where artists and children decorated life-sized camels that were "displayed in public places around the kingdom," and mentions that the government "is developing programmes to protect Bahrain's biodiversity, particularly the marine environment." Laudable though these efforts might be, they are unlikely to help resolve Bahrain's political crisis. Nor is a Sunningdale-type agreement where only the "tolerated opposition" is allowed into the talks while political figures in jail -- and those they represent -- are kept out of the deal.
If Bahrain is to avoid an opposition boycott of its elections later this year (which would seriously damage its already faltering international reputation) it will have to deliver a series of meaningful reforms in the coming months. Northern Ireland wasn't much of a fun place in the 1970s and 1980s, but if Bahrain is to avoid the same tragic results it needs to take some drastic steps, and soon.