Return to 50:50 may be needed [in police recruitment

Posted By: February 05, 2020

Irish News Editorial. Belfast. Wednesday, February 5, 2020

The appearance of Sinn Féin’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill at the launch of the latest PSNI recruitment campaign has been described as “seismic and historic” by Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

It is certainly a hugely significant step, sending out a firm message of support for policing to young nationalists and republicans.

The deputy first minister joined Arlene Foster and members of the Policing Board to promote the recruitment drive, which comes against a backdrop of concern over the level of Catholic representation in the PSNI.

Knowing that this round of applications will be a crucial test of the employment process, Mr. Byrne was understandably delighted by the public endorsement of senior Sinn Féin figures.

We are told that police commanders did not know until less than an hour before her arrival that Ms. O’Neill would be attending. No doubt the party will have carefully weighed this decision and there must be every possibility that the southern general election, in which Sinn Féin is enjoying a remarkable surge in the polls, played a part in those considerations.

But it also has to be recognized that ensuring the PSNI is representative of the community it serves is a major issue. The Patten policy of 50:50 recruitment was controversial and deeply disliked by unionists but it was effective in terms of boosting the number of Catholic officers. Since it was abandoned, the proportion of Catholic members has stalled at around 32 percent with a fear that the level could fall.

There are a number of factors being put forward for this situation, with the dissident republican threat a real worry for many families. However, Ms. O’Neill also pointed to another issue, one that has been previously highlighted, and that is the actual recruitment process.

She noted that only one in five Catholics who apply are successful, something that is worthy of closer scrutiny.

Mrs. Foster spoke about Sinn Féin’s journey in supporting the police and Ms. O’Neill’s presence yesterday will be seen in that context.

Attending a graduation ceremony for newly trained officers and their families is the obvious next step for the party.

The barriers to Catholic recruitment are well recognized but we need to get to a stage where a career in policing is seen as a positive choice.

If this latest campaign does not lead to improved representation, other measures, including a return to a 50:50 process, could not be ruled out.