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How a DUP-linked company is selling its version of Northern Irish peace to the brutal rulers of Bahrain — and the British taxpayer is paying for it

The British Foreign Office paid two Northern Irish bodies — one linked to the DUP —  to “whitewash” the Bahraini government as it tortured, raped and killed pro-democracy activists.

Riot police and army forces supported by armoured vehicles and a military helicopter storm Pearl Roundabout, Manama, Bahrain, 16 March 2011. By Bahrain in pictures -, CC BY-SA 3.0.In 2015, the Dubai-based Arabian Business published a glowing article about an initiative to promote peace and reconciliation in Bahrain. Representatives of the Bahrain Foundation for Reconciliation and Civil Discourse — a body set up in the wake of the government’s brutal crackdown on Arab Spring protesters — had held a series of meetings with the Belfast-based Causeway Institute for Peace-building and Conflict Resolution, Arabian Business reported. The Bahraini group’s chairman said he believed his country “has a lot to learn from Northern Ireland”. The Northern Irish group’s chairman is Jeffrey Donaldson — a senior MP of the Democratic Unionist Party, who actively opposed the Good Friday Agreement that ended the armed conflict in Ireland.

Not every review of this project is as positive. Today, human rights group Reprieve has called for the Northern Irish Assembly to conduct an independent inquiry into the work of both the Causeway Institute and its partner in the Bahrain project, Northern Ireland Co-operation Overseas, which is owned by Invest NI — a public body.

Reprieve accuses both firms of ‘whitewashing’ the Bahraini regime as it tortured, raped and executed pro-democracy activists.

The Northern Irish companies were not the only United Kingdom bodies at work in Bahrain in the aftermath of the crackdown. They were part of a major initiative in the Gulf kingdom from the British government’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) itself. It followed the killing of dozens of pro-democracy protesters in Bahrain during the Arab Spring in 2011. The international community had reacted with condemnation, and the Bahraini government had said that it was addressing the allegations of human rights violations. Hence British experts would work with Bahraini forces to train them in human rights compliance.

Since then the FCO has spent £5m of the British overseas aid budget to train police officers and prison guards, and to help establish investigatory bodies in Bahrain. But over that time, as Reprieve details in its report Training Torturers: The UK’s role in Bahrain’s brutal crackdown on dissent, Bahrain’s human rights record has actually got worse. Much worse.

The number of people on the country’s death row has tripled while the British government has been working in Bahrain. Last year, three anti-government prisoners were executed after sham trials, ending a seven-year moratorium on the death penalty. There have been sustained allegations of torture in detention and coerced confessions. It is in this context that lessons from Northern Ireland are being delivered by a company set up by Jeffrey Donaldson.

Bahrain’s Northern Irish connection

The Causeway Institute for Peace-building and Conflict Resolution (CIPCR) was established by Jeffrey Donaldson and his brother Kingsley, a former British army officer. The company describes its aim “to resolve conflicts in divided and disparate communities — both in Northern Ireland and other conflict zones across the globe”. Its goal, says Kingsley, is to share the lessons of the Northern Irish peace process “warts and all.”

Since 2011, Causeway has worked with the FCO in conflict regions around the world, including Moldova, Colombia, Ukraine and Afghanistan. Causeway’s work in Bahrain followed a visit Jeffrey Donaldson made there in 2012. The next year he facilitated meetings with a Bahraini delegation in Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s devolved legislature.

Causeway was hired by the FCO to work with non-governmental organisations and Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights. The company, which has also worked in Moldova, Colombia, Ukraine and Afghanistan, facilitated a number of visits for Bahraini delegations to Belfast to “learn the lessons from Northern Ireland”. But Reprieve’s report has found that Causeway trained groups that have publicly endorsed the executions of anti-government protesters.

What of the other Northern Irish organisation working for the FCO in Bahrain? Between 2013 and 2017, Northern Ireland Overseas Co-operation (NI-CO), which is owned by the government-funded development agency Invest NI, was paid around £1.5m to train Bahrain’s police and prison service and to help establish the kingdom’s state-run torture investigation unit.

‘Difficult message training’

The training NI-CO delivered included instruction on how to tell grieving family members of individuals killed by police in custody that officers accused of involvement in their deaths will not be prosecuted. In January 2016, NI-CO brought Bahraini officers to Belfast, to give them “difficult message training”, including “how prosecutors handle media contacts in difficult cases”, according to Freedom of Information requests cited in Reprieve’s report. NI-CO coordinated a meeting between the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman and the Bahraini visitors, who expressed specific interest in a case where a Northern Irish police officer was cleared over a shooting.

During a study visit to Belfast in the lead-up to a republican parade, officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland briefed a Bahraini delegation on community intelligence-gathering and on how to use dogs and water cannon. Just weeks later, Bahraini police located, arrested and tortured Ali al-Singace, a teenage protester who had been in hiding. He was later executed.

Answers needed

In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that of 138 cases referred to Bahrain's torture investigation unit, only one was successfully prosecuted. United Nations human rights experts have accused the Bahraini monarchy of “a clear pattern of criminalising dissent in Bahrain”.

Reprieve has called for the Northern Irish assembly to establish an inquiry into what the Northern Irish organisations did in Bahrain. “Serious questions remain about the activities of NI-CO and Causeway staff in Bahrain, including whether they were present inside of specific detention facilities at specific times when torture is known to have taken place,” says Reprieve director Maya Foa. “It is crucial that Stormont and the public know precisely what mistakes were made and how they can be avoided in the future.”

The call for an inquiry has been backed by Brice Dickson, a human rights specialist at Queen’s University Belfast and a member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. "If there is a suspicion that NI-CO and Causeway are propping up a regime that is abusing human rights than there should be an inquiry into that,” Dickson said.

“You don't want to give credibility to these repressive regimes. On the one hand you have to engage if you want to influence them. But whether than justifies spending £1.5m and sending Northern Irish delegations to Bahrain is a different question."

Both NI-CO and Causeway stopped working in Bahrain in 2017.

Selling the peace

NI-CO and Causeway’s work in Bahrain also raises the question of how much the Northern Ireland peace process is being ‘sold’ around the world. Some of those working for NI-CO in Bahrain were senior former police officers and security forces in Northern Ireland.

Causeway employs some of the same unionist politicians that most vociferously opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Jeffrey Donaldson eventually left the Ulster Unionist Party in 2003 because of its support for the agreement, joining the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).  On its website Causeway says that it works according to the “‘Mitchell Principles of Democracy and Non-Violence’ that were central to the Northern Ireland Peace Process," which they say "could be applied in full or in part to other conflicts”. And yet the DUP boycotted the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Donaldson brothers and DUP MPs Ian Paisley Junior and Emma Little Pengelly, who was a special adviser to the DUP’s then-first minister Peter Robinson, set up another company to give peace-building advice to overseas governments and organisations. Qubric described itself as "a social company" with any profit going towards "supporting projects in working-class Protestant areas". Qubric does not appear to have done any significant work, though Paisley has made repeated trips to Sri Lanka, another country divided by a recent civil war.

Kingsley Donaldson says that his brother’s involvement in peace-building work with Causeway is yet another example of the evolution of the Northern Irish process.

“To be fair to Sir Jeffrey, his work over the last 20 years has all been about peace-building. Just because you find flaws in a piece of legislation doesn’t mean you are opposed to peace,” he says.

But others in Northern Ireland have expressed disquiet about companies such as Causeway ‘selling the lessons of peace’ around the world. Jeffrey Donaldson is UK trade envoy to Egypt, another repressive regime. Earlier this year, another Reprieve report criticised NI-CO’s role in setting up juvenile courts in Egypt, which included the provision of ‘waterproof chairs for children’.

In Bahrain, the engagement of Northern Irish bodies was very positively reported in local media as evidence that abuses were being curbed. When Pauline McCabe, a former prisoner ombudsman in Northern Ireland and NI-CO trainer, wrote an op-ed in the Irish Times entitled “Bahrain deserves a chance to prove itself on human rights”, a pro-government news website in Bahrain ran another article, featuring McCabe’s picture, under the headline “RIGHTS CRITICS WRONG!”

Human rights groups say that the involvement of NI-CO and Causeway amounts to whitewashing the Bahrain regime. “The principal outcome of NI-CO's work has been to whitewash Bahrain's brutal crackdown on dissent and deflect international attention from the kingdom's human rights abuses,” says Reprieve director Foa.

“UK government training to Bahrain, carried out by NI-CO and Causeway, has done nothing but provide the regime with another layer of impunity. With help from the UK, the Bahraini government is now better positioned to whitewash its human rights violations. Bahrain has been emboldened and is now sentencing more people to death than at any time in its modern history. It is critical that the UK and Northern Irish governments stop providing cosmetic assistance that achieves nothing beyond deflecting crucial international scrutiny from Bahrain's abysmal — and worsening — human rights record,” said Sayed Alwadaei, who is the director of advocacy at the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

Kingsley Donaldson said he could understand why Reprieve was looking for greater transparency but he felt that his work in Bahrain had been valuable. “I’m not surprised that people would want to understand more but I’m not uncomfortable with what Causeway was doing in Bahrain and how we did it,” he said.

A spokeswoman for NI-CO said: “NI-CO worked on behalf of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Bahrain from 2013 until 2017. For as long as NI-CO continues to work within the auspices of these programmes, NI-CO will continue to deliver programmes, sharing the relevant learnings and experiences of Northern Ireland to change attitudes, culture and behaviour, ultimately to align countries such as Bahrain with relevant international standards.”

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