Opinion

The Irish News view: Time to restore PSNI's 50/50 policy

Some Catholics declined to apply to the RUC because of obvious fears about their personal safety. Picture by Niall Carson, PA
Some Catholics declined to apply to the RUC because of obvious fears about their personal safety. Picture by Niall Carson, PA Some Catholics declined to apply to the RUC because of obvious fears about their personal safety. Picture by Niall Carson, PA

Many heartening advances have been made since the launch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2002, and among the most significant has been has been the well documented increase in the number of Catholic recruits.

The former RUC was for a number of reasons an overwhelmingly Protestant force, with some 93 per cent of its members drawn from only one side of a divided society.

Some Catholics declined to apply to the RUC because of obvious fears about their personal safety, after entirely repugnant attacks by paramilitary groups killed over 300 officers, and left hundreds more maimed, during the course of The Troubles, but many others sought careers elsewhere because they were deeply unhappy with the overall ethos of the organisation.

Policing always had to be at the heart of the search for lasting peace and reconciliation in the aftermath of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of the PSNI represented a massive step forward.

Its initial policy of 50/50 recruitment between the two evenly balanced main traditions made perfect sense, with perceptions transformed as officers from all backgrounds worked positively together on behalf of the entire community.

Catholic representation jumped to over 30 per cent in less than a decade, and would undoubtedly had moved closer to parity if the Conservative secretary of state Owen Paterson, who was later forced to resign from parliament over a lobbying scandal, had not caved into unionist pressure and disgracefully abandoned the 50/50 principle in 2011.

The Catholic total has not surprisingly failed to develop since then, and, with budget restrictions now preventing the hiring of new officers, it could plainly start to decline soon.

An even bigger concern emerged as a result of the appalling data leak last week which temporarily allowed open online access to the names, ranks and locations over 10,000 members of the PSNI's policing and support staff.

It is a sad reality that, while all officers deserve to be fully safeguarded, those living in nationalist areas are in particular danger of being targeted by dissident republican elements, and there is clearly a risk that those PSNI members who are considering resignation after the data disaster could be disproportionately drawn from the Catholic tradition.

We may be approaching a defining moment in the short history of the PSNI, and there could not be a more appropriate stage to resume recruitment and restore the 50/50 policy at its heart.