Belfast Telegraph

PSNI needs Catholics more than ever in face of dissident threat: Lyra McKee funeral priest

EXCLUSIVE

Fr Martin Magill
Fr Martin Magill
Lyra McKee and partner Sara Canning
The Policing Board’s Anne Connolly
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The priest whose rousing speech won him a standing ovation at Lyra McKee's funeral has urged Catholics to join the police "now more than ever", saying: "Be the change you want to see."

Fr Martin Magill was speaking after the PSNI took out a full-page advertisement in the All-Ireland Final programme to promote their 2020 recruitment drive to ensure a more equal balance of new officers.

His comments come after the Continuity IRA (CIRA) admitted that it had tried to kill police officers twice in recent weeks and warned that more attacks were imminent.

Faced with a growing paramilitary threat, Fr Magill, who attended this year's attestation ceremony for the latest PSNI constables at the police college at Garnerville, said now was the time to work harder to encourage Catholic recruitment.

"I'm going to use a spiritual principle, agere contra," he said.

"Basically, whenever something happens, the natural reaction is to draw back.

"The natural reaction in terms of the CIRA upping the ante would be to draw back, to say no and to downplay recruiting.

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"But, following the spiritual principle, you actually say in that case that we need to work even harder to encourage recruitment. We actually need to put on a greater focus on encouraging Catholic people to join the PSNI, now more than ever.

"As a way of reacting to the CIRA, let's become more determined to encourage Catholic recruitment."

When Fr Magill attended last month's attestation ceremony for the latest PSNI constables at Garnerville, it was his first visit to the ceremony and the college, although he had been invited numerous times.

The priest, who is credited with galvanising Northern Ireland politicians and the British and Irish governments into restarting the Stormont talks, said his attendance followed a conversation with a local police inspector.

"He (the policeman) gave me a little bit of encouragement and that tipped the balance in favour of me going," Fr Magill said.

The 58-year-old clergyman also stressed that the PSNI had a lot to offer Catholics. "The reality is that it's a very good career," he said.

"But there's no doubt about it, there's a concern that the number of Catholic recruits has declined. There had been such an effort post-Patten to encourage more Catholics and to thereby have the PSNI as representative as possible.

"The key reason for me encouraging Catholics to join is that we have a police service that is as representative as possible of the local community."

However, Fr Magill also wants to see Protestants better represented in the force too.

"I spoke to Professor Anne Connolly, chairperson of the Policing Board, and raised with her the issue of under-representation from Protestant working class areas," he said.

Fr Magill, who is parish priest at St John's on the Falls Road in west Belfast, said he has "had a number of opportunities to raise the issue" about Catholics joining the PSNI, "including within my own family context".

"The first thing that I see is almost a visible sign of fear," he explained.

"That was almost a gut reaction. But then the next thing is the person starts thinking, 'Well, why not?'.

"So, there is a fear there, but I'm keen to encourage because it's important that we don't allow ourselves to be ruled by fear.

"I'm keen to encourage people to find the courage to say, 'Yes, I'm going to apply for the police service', because it does require courage because there are still people out there wanting to kill them."

In a recent interview, a masked and armed CIRA member told Swedish TV how the organisation was responsible for an attack at Wattle Bridge in Co Fermanagh a fortnight ago in which a bomb intended to kill police exploded.

The paramilitary, who was filmed holding an assault rifle as he sat in an armchair during the interview, claimed the organisation was also behind the firing of a horizontal mortar at a passing police patrol in Craigavon in July. Nobody was hurt in either incident.

Although the CIRA was responsible for the 2009 murder of PSNI officer Stephen Carroll, it has been largely inactive in recent years.

However its spokesman said: "We have regrouped, rearmed. We are just going to continue."

Fr Magill said: "Obviously, there are people who want to use circumstances and will want to use violence to control and to keep people in fear.

"The reality is that the fear factor is still there."

He also pointed out that there were two additional stumbling blocks - namely, "trust and legacy issues" - for Catholics thinking about signing up to the PSNI.

Fr Magill said he saw tangible changes in how the police were viewed and treated on the streets of his parish in west Belfast, which was once considered an extremely hostile place for any officer.

Citing an antisocial problem with youngsters in the City Cemetery, he revealed that police were recently "able to send in a Land Rover and a crew and move the young people on by getting out and talking to them".

Although aware that he is putting his head above the parapet by speaking out, Fr Magill stressed he wasn't afraid of any repercussions.

"One of the recommendations of the Patten Report is for people like me, church leaders and other people in civic society, to be playing their part to help build this new police service, and I take it seriously," he said.

When asked if he sees a time when Northern Ireland has a wholly representative police service, he replied: "That's the society I want to build.

"We all must be the change you want to see. We need to get key people behind that, right across civic society, so we don't leave it just to the politicians or church leaders.

"We need a variety of voices, for example, from the education sector and youth services. If they come out in support, that will make a difference. I don't hear too many voices, but I'd like to hear more. And I'd like to hear more females as well."

In the face of the ongoing threat from dissident republicans, Fr Magill said it was about addressing "those who are still wedded to violence as a way of achieving an end.

He said: "We need to show leadership and to acknowledge the courage of police officers and the sacrifice they've made.

"Attending the attestation ceremony helped invest me a bit more in this issue."

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