Alban Maginness: Policy of 50/50 recruitment was key to Catholics joining the PSNI ... it was political folly to scrap it
But reintroduction of positive discrimination must be matched by SF support for police force, says Alban Maginness
One of the most outstanding and unexpected successes of the Good Friday Agreement was the creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Despite its controversial RUC predecessor, the PSNI has become a widely accepted and respected police service for the whole community. With its widespread acceptability, there comes a popular legitimacy, which is its real source of strength and an aspect of policing denied to the RUC. The PSNI now polices our society with the consent of the community.
But there is a lurking and persistent problem highlighted recently by the Chief Constable, George Hamilton. He is an honest and frank public servant, who speaks his mind openly and clearly. He bluntly admitted, to a Westminster committee, that the recruitment of Catholics into the PSNI is not sufficiently high.
There are now 31.5% Catholics in the service. This is very good when compared to the RUC, which had only 8% Catholic membership, but still does not reflect the current demographic make-up of the Catholic community, which is nearly half the population.
The major reason why we have got to 31.5% is that there was 50/50 recruitment of Catholics into the service from its beginning in 2001, as recommended by Chris Patten, a former Conservative Cabinet minister, in his landmark report, A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland.
His aim was to build up the number of Catholics in the new service as swiftly as possible. To do that effectively and quickly, he recommended a temporary form of positive discrimination in favour of bringing in a high level of Catholic recruits.
He recognised that one of the main weaknesses of the RUC was the fact it had a very low membership of Catholics within its ranks. Patten believed that the new police service should be as representative as possible of the whole community.
Without that mechanism - strongly opposed by both unionists and the Alliance Party - the current level of Catholics in the PSNI would have been much lower.
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It is instructive to note that the recruitment figures have been static since 50/50 recruitment was dropped in 2011 by a Tory Secretary of State. Many believed at the time that the decision to do so was an attempt to appease the DUP, who were virulently opposed to 50/50.
His ill-considered decision was premature, given the fact that more Catholics could have been recruited into the PSNI if the mechanism had been allowed to remain in place for another few years. This could have brought Catholic numbers up to - and beyond - 40%, much more in keeping with the demographic profile of the Catholic community.
Even at that stage, in 2011, there were warning signs about Catholic recruitment, in that there was a greater drop-out rate of Catholic recruits from the PSNI than among their corresponding Protestant colleagues. This ill-thought out and politically charged decision has had a knock-on effect and continues to frustrate the levels of current recruitment.
That's why, if the numbers of Catholic recruits are to be substantially improved over the next five years, then 50/50 recruitment should be reintroduced. All other measures have demonstratively failed.
Of course, George Hamilton is also right to demand that political leaders in the nationalist community step up to the plate and become 'advocates' for the PSNI. It is not sufficient for politicians - especially Sinn Fein - to be minimalist in their public support.
Token utterances should be replaced by active advocacy for the PSNI in schools and youth clubs and other organisations. Policing is a vital public service and further Catholic recruitment into it can only strengthen that service and make lives safer and better.
Clearly, the deliberate targeting of Catholic police officers has negatively affected the recruitment of young Catholics. The murders of Catholic police officers Constables Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr and the life-changing booby-trap bomb attack on Peadar Heffron have obviously had an adverse impact on recruitment.
But the remarkable fact is that, despite these monstrous attacks, young Catholic men and women still continue to apply in significant numbers.
But more must be done to support those who apply and are ultimately successful in the recruitment process. As George Hamilton has said, the wider Catholic community need to show their active appreciation of the sacrifice and risks of all those that join the police service.
Ironically, this appreciation has spontaneously emerged, arising out of the vicious attacks on the police in Derry by the young rioters in the Bogside over the Twelfth week.
Doubtless, these young people have been exploited and used by sinister dissident republicans and their bankrupt political ideology. Nonetheless, these misguided young people needed to hear that very clear and united message from politicians, community leaders and Catholic clergy in Derry, that that type of inexcusable violence against the police is totally unacceptable and simply will not be tolerated.