Former high ranking Catholic PSNI man insists return to 50-50 policing is not the solution
A former Assistant Chief Constable has said that while more needs to be done to persuade Catholics to join the police, 50-50 recruitment is not the answer.
Peter Sheridan was speaking after the outgoing Chief Constable sparked controversy when he said community leaders must do more to encourage Catholics to seek a career in policing.
George Hamilton said the number of Catholic PSNI officers - now at 32% - is likely to drop "if nothing changes" and added that both the application rate and success rate of Catholics "falls well below" what it should be.
Mr Hamilton's comments provoked criticism from the SDLP who said that the 50-50 policy should never have been removed, while Sinn Fein said it wasn't up to political parties to recruit for the PSNI.
The DUP weighed in, accusing nationalist politicians of paying lip service to policing and lacking real leadership, while the UUP said it has always been opposed to 50-50 recruitment and does not want to see it return.
Meanwhile, high-profile priest Fr Martin Magill said he supported the Chief Constable's remarks and said that church leaders and politicians have a responsibility to encourage Catholics to join the PSNI where appropriate.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Sheridan, who was once Northern Ireland's top Catholic police officer, said he believed the PSNI should "seek to avoid" a new 50-50 policy, despite the organisation's current recruitment challenges.
"I genuinely believe that we should look for the best people regardless of religious background," he said.
"I think we should seek to avoid 50-50 if we can.
"Having said that, it also has to be reflective of society.
"We're at 32%. We should work hard at maintaining that, picking people because they have the skills for policing, not because of their religious background."
But given the low percentage of Catholics in the PSNI, Mr Sheridan, who now heads up cross-border charity Co-operation Ireland, said more should be done to encourage recruits from that side of the community.
"If there's a sense that somehow we're going to lose that representation then I absolutely do think that people should be championing the need for people [Catholics] to join the police service," he said.
"I'm not sure 50-50 would be the answer today because I'm not sure there would be any more encouragement for young people to join if that was the case."
The PSNI replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in November 2001, and a 50-50 recruitment policy ran for its first 10 years until 2011.
This meant that 50% of all recruits had to be from a Catholic background, and 50% from a Protestant or other background. When the policy began, about 8% of police officers were Catholics. Mr Sheridan said that while it was the right strategy then, it isn't the way forward in his view.
"I was in favour of 50-50 at the time because we needed to rebalance the organisation but we shouldn't consistently need to do that," he said.
"We should be looking for the best people whatever their religion or gender or anything else."
The ex-head of the PSNI's Crime Operations Department also said it would be "dangerous" to lay the blame for this lack of Catholic recruits at the door of nationalist politicians, community leaders or any individual.
"It's on all of us - it's on our politicians, it's on the community, it's on the police," he said.
"Policing has to be reflective of society and the democracy it serves so therefore it's everybody's responsibility."
Fr Magill, whose emotive speech during the funeral of murdered journalist Lyra McKee prompted a standing ovation, said he was "very supportive" of what Mr Hamilton said.
"The bottom line is that Church leaders and politicians should encourage Catholics to consider a career in policing when an appropriate opportunity arises," he added.
Mervyn Storey, the DUP MLA, said nationalist representatives must "step up to the challenge issued by the Chief Constable to demonstrate civic leadership and properly advocate a career in policing".
He accused Sinn Fein of failing "to step forward and demonstrate real leadership" and slammed the SDLP's call for 50-50 recruitment to be reinstated as a "knee-jerk response".
He added: "It is not enough for nationalist and republican representatives to pay lip service to policing."
Dolores Kelly said the SDLP encourages any young person from a nationalist community who is thinking about a career in policing to pursue it.
"Ending 50-50 policing has had a detrimental impact on the makeup of the PSNI. We warned the British Government against it," she added.
"It's time for a rethink."
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly accused Mr Hamilton of "attempting to deflect from failings within policing" by blaming political parties for the lack of young nationalist recruits.
"While I am on the record as having said my door is open to assist anyone interested in a policing career, it is not and never has been the job of any political party to recruit for the PSNI," he said.
Ulster Unionist MLA Alan Chambers said his party has always been opposed to 50-50 recruitment and does not want to see it return.