Revelations about the rehiring of retired police officers in Northern Ireland could cripple efforts to instil community confidence in policing, Stormont's Deputy First Minister has warned.
Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said the findings of an auditors' report on the controversial policy of re-employing, on temporary contracts, officers who had already left with hefty severance payouts were damning and had cast a "dark cloud" over the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
But Democratic Unionist First Minister Peter Robinson said the practice had to be viewed in the context of what he said was a police service that had been forced to shed too many full time officers too quickly as part of peace process reforms.
The Audit Office found more than 1,000 officers who retired to make way for new recruits have returned as temporary staff.
Almost a fifth of retirees under Lord Patten's scheme to overhaul the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and introduce more Catholics following decades of conflict were re-employed.
Some started days after leaving with inflated retirement payouts granted as part of the Patten reforms.
"Quite clearly this is a shocking revelation," said Mr McGuinness. "One that runs totally contrary to the Patten proposals and recommendations.
"Here we had for quite a number of years the whole 50:50 concept being put forward to recruit more Catholics into the police service yet it's quite clear behind the scenes for whatever reason people in the highest authority thought it was a good idea to bring back former members of the RUC. I think it's quite a damning indictment and it's incumbent now upon the senior echelons of the PSNI to correct this mistake as quickly as possible."
But Mr Robinson, who at the time opposed the Patten reforms, said it was important to set the issue in historical context.
"There was such a rush to get rid of the RUC through the Patten proposals that we lost a lot of expertise in the police service and that's why this kind of mess, if you like to call it that, commenced because of this head long rush to get rid of the RUC."