Opinion

The perennial problem of attracting Catholics to the north’s police - Cormac Moore

Cormac Moore

Cormac Moore

Historian Cormac Moore is a columnist with The Irish News and editor of On This Day.

First Minister Michelle O'Neill during the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s attestation ceremony for six newly qualified officers at Garnerville Police College  on Friday.
Sinn Féin attended a PSNI graduation ceremony for the first time.
Picture: COLM LENAGHAN
First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly became the first Sinn Féin representatives to openly attend a PSNI attestation ceremony for newly-qualified officers earlier this month. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

The decision of First Minister Michelle O’Neill to use PSNI bodyguards and to be the first Sinn Féin public representative, along with Gerry Kelly, to openly attend a PSNI graduation ceremony are welcome steps and could have a galvanising effect in attracting more nationalists and Catholics to join the northern police force – something that has proven one of the most persistent challenges since the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921.

The Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was the primary policing body on the island of Ireland in 1921. At the time of its inception, Northern Ireland also had an auxiliary police service, the Ulster Special Constabulary, established in late 1920. While there were many Catholic members of the RIC, the Ulster Specials was almost an exclusively Protestant force, comprised of members mainly from the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF).

The RIC was formally disbanded in May 1922 and replaced by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) in the beginning of June as the north’s new regular police force. The Specials remained in place until 1970. Charles Wickham, divisional commissioner of the RIC for Ulster, became the RUC’s first inspector general. This was unpopular with many hard-line loyalists who felt Wickham, as an Englishman, “was not sufficiently committed to their cause”.

Originally, the new force was to be called the Ulster Constabulary. A recommendation was made to include “Royal” in the title, which was yet another obstacle in attempting to allocate 1,000 members to Catholics – one-third of the 3,000-strong force – to reflect the population of Northern Ireland at the time

In January 1922, the northern home secretary, Richard Dawson-Bates, had appointed a 15-person committee, including two Catholics, to investigate the organisation, recruitment, conditions of service, strength and cost of the future police force. The committee also took evidence from different parties.

It agreed that the police force should be centrally controlled by the northern government and not to be the responsibility of county councils, as it was felt that some, particularly nationalist-leaning ones, could not be trusted. It was stated that it “would be an absolutely impossible view that the county council of Fermanagh should take over the police force, owing to their political complexion. They would recruit their own men for the purpose of carrying out their own views”.

The committee concluded that the new force should be based around the existing organisational structure of the RIC, with personnel coming from the RIC and Specials. There were some doubts about hiring from the RIC, with claims that “nine-tenths of them were recruited outside the northern area”. In the south, there were examples of RIC officers being ordered to leave areas by the IRA, with many moving to the north.

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary standing behind barbed wire
The Royal Irish Constabulary was disbanded in 1922

Most of the doubts about suitability were reserved for the Specials, though. One commentator claimed that only 10% of the Specials “could write an intelligible report… If a man is any good he has found a job outside the Specials. It is only the unemployed we are getting in the Specials. The greater number of them were unemployed”. Many felt the ratio of RIC to Specials should be 70:30 – however, it was ultimately decided to compose the RUC of 50:50 if the Specials received a full six months of training.

Originally, the new force was to be called the Ulster Constabulary. A recommendation was made to include “Royal” in the title, which was granted by King George V in April 1922. The new name was yet another obstacle in attempting to allocate 1,000 members of the new force to Catholics – one third of the 3,000-strong force – to reflect the population of Northern Ireland at the time.

The Catholic recruits were to be drawn from ex-RIC officers and the civilian population. Nine of the 15 from the committee complained about the high numbers reserved for Catholics. Nonetheless, the Catholic allocation remained at one third, at least nominally.

 The RUC complained in 1993 about cooperation with gardaí
Originally, the new police force was to be called the Ulster Constabulary. A recommendation was made to include 'Royal' in the title, which was granted by King George V in April 1922

One of the witnesses to the committee, Colonel Tillie from Derry, suggested that “much good might be achieved by informal talks between the county representatives of the RIC, Special Police, etc and the county organisers of the IRA”. He believed if there was no informal consultation with the IRA, “the new force will be entirely composed of Protestants without any Roman Catholic representation in it, unless what you get from the old RIC”.

The committee ruled against meeting with the IRA, “an illegal organisation”, which they believed was not representative of most Catholics, who wanted peace and were constitutional in their politics.

While the Specials remained essentially Protestant in composition, in the end Catholics comprised one sixth of the numbers of the RUC, not one third as allocated, most of them being former members of the RIC. No attempt was made to increase this proportion and by 1936 there were only 488 Catholics out of 2,849 in the RUC and only 9 Catholics among the 55 officers holding the rank of district inspector and above. This had declined to about one in 10 by the late 1960s. According to Brendan O’Leary, “Catholics did not join because they did not regard the police as legitimate… When they joined, the atmosphere was rarely inclusive: institutional affiliations between police units and Orange lodges confirmed Catholic perceptions of the RUC as Protestants with guns”.

Graffiti on a wall directed against the "B-Specials" (Ulster Special Constabulary) on the Falls Road in west Belfast
Northern Ireland - The Troubles - Falls Road - Belfast A slogan directed against the "B-Specials" (Ulster Special Constabulary) on the Falls Road in west Belfast (PA/PA)

With the onset of the Troubles, and despite the disbandment of the Specials in 1970 following the Hunt Report, with many former Specials subsequently joining the newly-formed Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), Catholics and nationalists did not join the security forces in large numbers. They felt the RUC was disproportionally harsh in its treatment of Catholics, in some instances was actively colluding with loyalists, and feared ostracisation from their community if they did join the RUC.

A widescale reform of policing became a key plank of the peace process, which saw the PSNI replacing the RUC in 2001, with a commitment to affirmative recruitment (which lasted until 2011) to enable the new force to have a 50:50 Protestant/Catholic split (Catholics only made up 6.9% of the RUC in 1993).



However, Sinn Féin did not fully recognise the PSNI until 2007, as part of the St Andrews Agreement. Since then, the party has been a reluctant advocate until now, with O’Neill believing her ‘first minister for all’ vow should include a whole-hearted acceptance of the PSNI.

This change may see a surge in Catholic and nationalist recruitment into the force, something that has not happened since the foundation of Northern Ireland over 100 years ago. Who knows, after accidentally nominating Carál Ní Chuilín for the role, one day Gerry Kelly may even get to nominate a Sinn Féin-leaning Deputy Chief Constable for real.