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If Sinn Fein cares about imbalance in the PSNI, why not begin with lack of working-class Protestants?

There’s nothing wrong with police officers talking to pupils in our schools, writes Nelson McCausland

Earlier this year, I was appointed to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and it has been an interesting six months. For each of the board meetings, members can submit written questions for the Chief Constable, and they receive written answers that are tabled at the meeting.

For the meeting on December 1, Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly tabled a question about the visit by a PSNI officer to Loreto Grammar School in Omagh, and asked: “Will the Chief Constable give an explanation of reports that a serving police officer was recruiting for the RAF in a school recently?”

The question was prompted by a recent visit to the school by a PSNI officer to talk to the girls about career opportunities, internet safety and good citizenship. Afterwards, the school tweeted its thanks to the officer in question.

Local Sinn Fein representative Barry McElduff MLA — never a man to miss an opportunity and himself the beneficiary of a grammar school education — was quick off the mark.

He claimed that he had been “inundated” with phone calls from “concerned and angry” parents and past pupils, and said that the PSNI “must answer why it is promoting the British armed forces in school visits”.

“Our schools should not be used to recruit young people for imperialist conflicts and to be trained in warfare,” he added.

It seems that, during the visit, the officer referred to the RAF Air Cadets, an organisation for young people, and this angered critics.

I found that somewhat ironic, in that Barry is clearly concerned about what he terms ‘recruitment’, but he didn’t show the same concern when some of his party colleagues formally handed out Bobby Sands certificates to children in a secondary school in west Belfast.

Many people will have viewed the handing out of the Bobby Sands certificates by Martin McGuinness on that occasion as a way of recruiting children to republicanism.

In the wake of Barry’s statement, the school explained that the officer had spoken to the girls about a range of volunteering opportunities, and, of course, volunteering is of benefit to young people as part of their personal development and also in building up their CV.

Nevertheless, Gerry Kelly tabled his question, and the Chief Constable was able to explain that the officer had visited the school in his police uniform and in his capacity as a police officer.

He also explained that the officer had spoken to the girls about a range of volunteering opportunities, including Outward Bound, the Scouts, the Prince’s Trust and the Ulster Gliding School, as well as the local RAF Cadets.

But that was not the only question tabled by Gerry Kelly that day, for he also asked the Chief Constable for statistics about the gender and community background of members of the PSNI.

He obviously wants to see more women and more Roman Catholics recruited into the PSNI, and the answer provided the information requested.

His question also asked if there was a “positive action plan” to address any imbalance or lack of representation.

Now, one of the best ways to increase recruitment from any sector of society is for police officers to visit the relevant secondary school to speak to the children.

That could apply to any of the under-representations, whether women, Roman Catholics, or even Protestants from working-class communities. That third under-representation is one that is sometimes overlooked, in spite of the fact that it was highlighted by a former Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, as far back as 2008.

The visit that was the focus of the Sinn Fein question was to a Roman Catholic school and a school for girls — two of the groups about which they have concerns, so it should have been welcomed by the party.

So, perhaps, as part of their commitment to law and order and support for the PSNI, we can hear less sniping from Sinn Fein as the PSNI seeks to reach out to all communities.

Oh, and well done to the school in Omagh for opening up opportunities for its young people.

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