How Owen Paterson's stupid decision to end 50/50 recruitment has made the PSNI a colder house for Catholics
The falling numbers of Catholic police recruits is now a grave concern, says Malachi O’Doherty
I used to work for the RUC. Not many people know that. It started when I was asked to take part in panel discussions the trainees at Garnerville in Holywood. I would often meet a Catholic priest and a member of a republican family there or a former loyalist prisoner.
These were formal discussions, under the supervision of officers, perhaps concerned to keep everything orderly and tame.
Most of the trainees then, as now, were Protestant, though the proportion was higher. Not that I knew exactly.
And most were male.
All were white.
The best part of the evening was when the bar opened, though I could only risk drinking if I had the UVF man to drive me home, and he was often obliging. The bar was called The Harp and Crown, which tells you something.
It was based on the RUC badge of the time, which featured an Irish harp with the crown over it. It represented past efforts to accommodate the symbols of our two communities.
This badge declared that this was an Irish police force as much, or nearly as much, as it was a British one.
The current obsolescence of that badge speaks to the failure of past efforts to include Catholics as comfortably as Protestants. And that, in itself is a worry.
Before the Patten reforms were ever implemented, those in charge of policing should have reminded themselves that this was an old problem, that there have been past efforts to resolve it and that there has been a history of failure.
Instead, they congratulated themselves on their imagination and magnanimity and proceeded with reform and the effort to include Catholics without any expectation that this could go wrong.
Then Owen Paterson made one of the stupidest decisions of a working Secretary of State in modern times.
He abandoned the provision that stipulated that half of all recruits should be Catholic, having decided that the momentum towards the full equality of representation of the two communities was sufficiently advanced to require no further assistance.
Since then, the representation of Catholics in the PSNI has fallen.
I got to know the RUC quite well. I actually think they are maligned in the way in which they are remembered.
I was invited to contribute to their training at Gough Barracks in Armagh and then at Maydown in Derry.
Once a fortnight, during the training period, I would find myself in a long armoured room, little bigger than the top of a bus, talking to about 15 'probationers'. On average one or two might be Catholic, though I would only know that if they introduced themselves as such, and two of them would be women.
We had magnificent rows sometimes. I never met a body of people that more readily expected to be misunderstood.
Since I only had each class once, in the following years I went through the entire recruitment.
Every RUC member joining at that time had to sit in front of me for two hours.
There was one, a woman, who slipped through and they called me back to give her a one-on-one lesson, which was awkward since I ran it as a discussion group.
I developed a powerful sense of the RUC of the time as a separate community. It was more Protestant in its membership, but it was more police than it was Protestant.
These were people who were as contemptuous, many of them, of the Orange Order and the unionist parties as they were of the nationalists.
They were also pretty contemptuous of their own leadership.
What they had in common was that they loved policing.
None of them had joined to fight the IRA or crack the heads of protesters or to advance a sectarian agenda.
Many of them joined the police because they had had family members who had been in the force too.
So, faced with the critical slide in Catholic numbers, following the pathetic inability of Owen Paterson to recognise how dangerous further decline would be, how are we to explain the disinclination of Catholics to join?
There can be many reasons for it, as many as there are young Catholic men and women who thought for a moment of joining and then dismissed the idea.
One might be the very dropping of the 50-50 rule. That sends the message that the PSNI is happy to have a Protestant majority, or at least that the Northern Ireland Office is happy with that.
Catholics getting that message may fear that they would never feel properly at home there, whatever the form of words used about how welcome their applications are.
There is also the lack of a strong tradition of policing here in the Catholic communities. There are few examples to follow, few parents to encourage sons and daughters to apply.
There is the danger, marginally greater for a Catholic than for a Protestant, while republican die-hards are still trying to kill police officers.
There is also the need to keep the job secret so as not to expose oneself or family members to risk.
These dangers apply in loyalist communities too, where many people get sidelined for joining or having a close relative in the PSNI, but Protestants also have more support for a decision to join, more friends and relations who would help and encourage.
Another problem is that 15 years ago, when the PSNI was being reformed, there was an atmosphere of greater hope in Northern Ireland. It wasn't just policing that was changing, it was the whole political culture.
What has followed has been a let-down. Then, some Catholics thought they were making a brave decision for the sake of creating a new Northern Ireland. Now, they might look around and see that the old division is still there and politics is governed by conservative and moralistic values.
Furthermore, policing is a community with its own history and its own grievances and its own sense of never having been properly appreciated, and any new recruit is either going to fit into that community, belong more to it than to the Protestant or Catholic community, or feel alienated by it.
The only way for that to happen for larger numbers of Catholics is for there to be more Catholics in the PSNI who have already made that transition from thinking of themselves as members of one community to thinking of themselves as peelers. There has to be a tipping point mass of Catholic membership and there just isn't.
What Paterson forgot when he made his stupid decision was a huge part of the problem here was Catholic community alienation from the police. He decided it didn't matter. Perhaps the damage is now done.
If we go back to 10% Catholic membership, we might as well give them back the harp and crown badge, and remind ourselves what it really stands for. It stands for a long history of failure to bring two communities together in the one police service.