Arresting this slide in Catholic officers crucial if faith in police is not to suffer
Statistics obtained by the Belfast Telegraph reveal that only 77 out of 400 new PSNI officers are Catholic. Is it now time to reintroduce the 50/50 recruitment policy, asks criminologist Jonny Byrne
Let us be very clear: policing in Northern Ireland is as much about "keeping people safe" as it is a "symbol of the transformation from conflict to peace".
The Police Service of Northern Ireland has become a tangible beacon of change; an institution that people can point to as evidence that the conflict is over.
For that very reason it is imperative that its legitimacy is not brought into doubt or trust in it is broken because the public no longer maintains that the organisation is representative.
Currently the workforce composition of the PSNI is approximately 30% Catholic and 68% Protestant. Yet the figures for the last two recruitment campaigns indicate that significantly more Protestants view policing as a career compared to Catholics.
This is a worrying development and one that must be addressed or we run the risk of unravelling some of the successes that have stemmed from the Patten recommendations, which became the foundations for the emergence of the PSNI.
Looking back it was clear even then that, although the political parties realised the importance of separating the issue of police reform from the political negotiations in 1998, there was a recognition that any police service should be "representative of the society it polices".
That position has been at the heart of the transformation of policing in Northern Ireland and was justification for one of Patten's most contentious recommendations: that of 50/50 recruitment.
The policy ended in 2011 with the then Secretary of State Owen Paterson indicating it was no longer necessary.
However, the fact that, in 2014, more than 76% of PSNI applicants who made the merit pool were from a Protestant background raises questions about the potential composition of a future policing service under open market candidates.
In light of these figures, there is an immediate need to explore why Catholics are significantly less likely to apply for a career in the police.
Is there still a resistance of joining the police because of historical factors - within particular communities does there remain a residual legacy of "bad policing" that inhibits their ability to connect with the organisation?
Or is the current terrorist threat putting off young Catholics from applying?
More specifically, is the targeting of Catholics in particular within the PSNI the main cause of concern?
Furthermore, do the family and friendship networks make joining the police a more attractive option for Protestants? Historically, policing as an institution has been associated with large families and close circles of acquaintances and friends.
There are a number of pre-existing relationships - largely Protestant within the Northern Ireland "policing family" - which may make it more predictable for new potential recruits to emerge from the Protestant community.
One also has to ask whether Catholics find it difficult to identify with the PSNI? How often do Catholics across Northern Ireland come into contact with the organisation in a normal capacity? And how embedded is the PSNI within Catholic communities in both urban and rural settings?
Or is it simply the case that, regardless of the significant changes that have taken place within the institution, the PSNI is still perceived as a predominantly Protestant organisation with a very unionist ethos?
It is also important to shift our inquisitive analysis and consider two other factors which may be impeding the Catholic interest in joining the PSNI.
There is no doubting the root-and-branch reform that policing has undergone in Northern Ireland and the catalyst for it - the Patten recommendations - envisaged a time when policing would be delivered within a "normal society". However, our society is far from "normal" and is still deeply segregated across religious lines.
Paramilitaries of different persuasions still dominate communities and influence the policing and community safety landscape.
Furthermore, politics still appears unstable and unable to address the fundamental issues that divide communities. These are issues that the PSNI is unable to control - yet they have a significant influence on the "policing job" and, therefore, affect how the public perceives what would be expected of them if they joined the police.
Finally, one must ask whether the PSNI, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, policing and community safety partnerships and politicians in general have done enough to encourage young people - especially those from the Catholic community - to apply to join the police.
In terms of the terrorist threat, have enough people done enough to counter the negative narratives surrounding it and replaced myths and fiction with fact?
There is a lack of information out there about what policing entails, and more importantly "what it means to be a police officer" given the current political world in which we live.
Policing has been one of the most successful stories of our peace and political processes. There have been many personal sacrifices, uncomfortable conversations and difficult decisions taken to get us to this place were the organisation is moving to a position were it is largely representatives of the society in which it polices.
The policy of 50/50 recruitment allowed that to happen; without it, the successful transition of policing would not have taken place.
In its absence there are signs that the composition of the organisation is taking a backward step - and the question of reintroducing 50/50, or finding another approach that addresses the issue, is becoming critical.
Dr Jonny Byrne lectures in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at Ulster University