The PSNI chief constable said the appearance of Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at a police recruitment drive was “seismic and historic”.
Simon Byrne was speaking after Ms O’Neill arrived at the police training college, along with party colleagues and policing spokesman Gerry Kelly, at the launch of a campaign to recruit 600 new officers on Tuesday morning.
Her decision to turn up at the campaign launch at Garnerville in east Belfast comes amid ongoing concerns over the force’s ability to attract Catholic officers since the controversial 50:50 policy ended in 2011.
She joined DUP First Minister Arlene Foster as they posed for photographs with Mr Byrne holding up posters promoting the PSNI as a "positive career choice".
“I think it’s seismic and historic in terms of the history of the PSNI and the commitment we have heard from Sinn Fein today, and indeed all political leaders who have joined us in this launch,” said Mr Byrne.
Sinn Fein had previously been accused of not doing enough to advocate policing as a career and Mr Byrne had also called on nationalist and republican leaders to be more vocal in promoting the police in the past.
“We have called for that support in the past and now people have stood up to that challenge and stepped forward and are encouraging people to join the PSNI so I think it’s an historic day not just for policing but for Northern Ireland,” Mr Byrne said.
Ms O’Neill said she wanted to encourage Catholics to join the PSNI because she hopes to establish a police service that is more representative of the community it serves.
“Clearly the PSNI have launched a very significant, intensive, recruitment campaign and we are here because it is no secret that nationalists are unrepresentative in the police service,” she said.
“If we are going to have a police service that commands community confidence, then it needs to be reflective of the community it serves, so we are here because of that reason.”
It is no secret that nationalists are unrepresentative in the police serviceMichelle O'Neill
The deputy first minister said she wanted to see a return of the controversial 50:50 positive discrimination tool that ensures the PSNI recruits Catholics and Protestants in equal numbers.
She said steps also needed to be taken to address under-representation of women and members of ethnic minorities.
Ms O’Neill highlighted that only one out of every five Catholics who apply for the PSNI are successful, adding that “there is a big issue here in terms of Catholics being successful in the recruitment process".
Representatives of political parties, sporting bodies and churches attended the event, including high-profile west Belfast priest Fr Martin Magill, who has previously called on Catholics to consider a career in policing.
In the lead up to the new campaign, which is the first since October 2018, there has been renewed debate about whether there needs to be a return to 50:50 recruitment.
When the PSNI replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in November 2001 the policy ran for its first 10 years.
That meant that 50% of all recruits had to be from a Catholic background, and the other 50% from a Protestant or other background.
The policy saw numbers of Catholic police officers rise from 8% to 32%, but that has stalled in the years since it ended.
But this is not the only recruitment challenge for PSNI if it ever hopes to reflect the composition of Northern Ireland society.
Of its 6,900 officers, 67% are “perceived” as being Protestant, 32% Catholic and 1% are from an ethnic minority.
Meanwhile, seven in every 10 officers are male.
The PSNI has also said it must work harder to attract interest from working class Protestants and members of the LGBT community.