Just one in four people in Northern Ireland would encourage a close relative to join the PSNI.
The Belfast Telegraph poll findings will make difficult reading for Chief Constable Matt Baggot as they suggest that there is still fear — particularly among nationalists — about joining the police.
Amongst Catholics the proportion who would encourage a relative to join the police fell to just one in 10.
But the majority of people, 65%, refused to give any opinion at all.
This was the only question in the poll where a clear majority of people would say nothing. By contrast only about one in seven people (14%) refused to say whether or not they favoured a united Ireland. Gerry Lynch — an analyst with our polling partners LucidTalk — described the refusal rate as “off the scale”.
When the figures are broken down 74% of men, 60% of women, 64% of Protestants and 77% of Catholics declined to give any answer at all.
Mr Lynch felt the low response rate was partly prompted by the words “close relative”.
Considering whether they would like to see a loved one in the PSNI, he believed, made the question more problematic than a general query about support for the police.
The PSNI has scored approval ratings of 80% in some surveys.
Mr Lynch pointed out that, even “of the tiny number of Catholics who dare venture an opinion, 54% would not encourage a close relative to join the PSNI”.
Just over a third of Protestants, 36%, were prepared to answer but 90% of those who did answer would encourage the relative.
This religious split could be fuelled by fear of dissident republican attacks. These have mainly targeted Catholic PSNI officers, killing two and injuring several more. Figures issued in answer to parliamentary questions last year show 260 officers left the PSNI with less than five years service between 2001 and 2011.
Of these 56.2% were Catholics.
There has also been a gradual reduction of the proportion of Catholics in the force. It fell from 30.3% in March last year to 27.3% in February of this year, according to figures published by the Community Relations Council (CRC) in its Peace Monitoring Report.
According to the same CRC report an estimated 46% of the overall population are Catholics.
One bright spot, from the PSNI’s point of view, is that young adults aged between 18 and 24 were the most likely group both to answer the question and to encourage a relative to join. This is the age group from which police recruits are mainly drawn.
Half of them answered the question and of that 50%, two-thirds (66%) said they would offer encouragement to a relative.
For full statistics analysis visit Lucid talk
Seeking honest answers, but not everyone will like them
By Gerry Lynch
Good polling is about holding a mirror up to society, allowing people to see how they and their neighbours think about the key issues of the day.
In a divided society, misconceptions and false assumptions can bedevil attempts to achieve effective and efficient government. In our phone-in driven political culture, the loudest voices can sometimes drown out the opinions of ordinary people.
Good polling allows an accurate assessment to be made of what the people really think and why.
Doing so means interviewing many people — in this case over 1200 — to ensure random errors and bias are minimised, and ensuring that the people interviewed genuinely reflect the whole of society, including those whose opinions are often not heard by decision makers.
LucidTalk is a Belfast based company which prides itself on understanding the unique nature of Northern Ireland society, and we work hard to make sure we hear the opinions of people from every section of the community — right across the political and religious spectrum, across the age range and in all locations.
This often reveals that different groups of people have different opinions on the same question.
While we tend to focus on sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland, our polling often reveals that the two main communities think more or less the same things about the same questions, while the real differences of opinion are between young and old, men and women or middle-class and working-class people.
For example, some of the Northern Ireland parties have strong gender gaps in support. Sinn Fein voters are more likely to be men, while almost two-thirds of Alliance voters are women.
Polls are often dismissed, especially by those unhappy with the results.
Good polling is about finding out honest answers to questions.
Without it, politicians, businesspeople and those delivering public services are left to make key decisions based on guesswork and instinct.
Gerry Lynch is an analyst for LucidTalk