| 12.3°C Belfast

Politicians divided on proposal to end 50-50 recruiting by police

When the recruitment process for the police service was introduced following the Good Friday Agreement, Catholics made up about 8% of the force; today the figure is almost 30%IT will take at least three more decades before Northern Ireland’s police service will achieve “full representation” if 50-50 recruitment is scrapped, nationalist politicians have claimed.

Secretary of State Owen Paterson announced yesterday that the policy introduced following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement should end next March, prompting a backlash from Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Both parties criticised the decision not to “renew the provisions”, arguing more work needed to be done to ensure the PSNI was truly reflective of Northern Ireland’s divided community. Unionists, who have always opposed the measure, have welcomed the plans.

When the recruitment process was introduced 10 years ago, Catholics made up about 8% of the RUC. Today the figure is almost 30%.

DUP Policing Board member Jimmy Spratt said he was glad the policy may end, describing it as “discriminatory” because it prevented Protestants from joining.

He said: “50-50 recruitment was never equal. It was 50% Catholic, 50% other, which meant people from ethnic, non-religious and Protestant backgrounds. It was a double-whammy, double discrimination against people from the Protestant community.”

Sinn Fein Policing Board member Alex Maskey described Mr Paterson’s move as arrogant.

“This is yet another indication of the arrogance of a British Tory minister attempting to impose their will on important issues here in the North,” he said.

“What is central in all of this is the continued need for the PSNI to be truly reflective of and responsible to the broader community in the North of Ireland.

“As yet that is not the case, 29% representation of those from a Catholic background is not a satisfactory reflection.”

The SDLP’s Dominic Bradley said the Patten Report recommendation to set a quota for the force to achieve 50% Catholic representation in its membership was “one of the major achievements of the peace process”.

He said his party was against moves to scrap the policy.

“Although we have almost 30% from a Catholic background I don’t believe it is fully representative.

“We need somewhere in the region of 40-44% before we can say it is fully representative.

“If it doesn’t continue, it will take around 30 years to reach a broadly representative police service, and that is too long to wait.”

Analysis: A policy that always made unionists uncomfortable

When it was first introduced, the 50-50 recruitment policy was hailed as a step in the right direction for policing in Northern Ireland.

Throughout the Troubles, and until very recently, the relationship between the wider nationalist community and the RUC was extremely fraught.

The service was predominantly made up of Protestants and many Catholics complained of being victimised by the police at the height of the civil unrest.

After the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, former Conservative MP Chris Patten was appointed to head an independent commission into policing in Northern Ireland.

His subsequent report made 175 recommendations — some symbolic, such as changing the name from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland — and some practical, such as the 50-50 recruitment process.

Because many nationalists felt under-represented, it was decided the new service would aim for an equal number of police officers recruited from both sides of the community.

Legislation was created and then introduced formally in 2001.

At the time Catholics made up just 8% of the force.

A decade on and that number now stands at almost 30%.

But its implementation has proved controversial with unionists.

Those in the unionist community have complained the quota has led to Protestants being discriminated against.

The DUP and Ulster Unionists claim new recruits were only being selected based on their religion rather than on merit.

Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP maintain the policy was in place to ensure the PSNI was truly reflective of Northern Ireland’s divided community.

Over the past 10 years there have been four reviews of the policy, with the next one due to take place on March 28, 2011.

However, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson said yesterday that he was “minded not to review the provisions”.

Belfast Telegraph