Northern Ireland

PSNI recruitment campaign: Attracting Catholics still an issue for police

PSNI passing out parade
Image caption The policy of balancing one Catholic for every non-Catholic recruit was ended after 10 years in 2011

Michael is not his real name - to identify him could increase the threat faced by his son, a Catholic police officer.

To the outside world, his son's job remains secret.

"When you meet new people someone might say 'what do your children do?' But you develop a knack for avoiding it," he told BBC News NI.

Next week the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) launches a new recruitment campaign and attracting more Catholics is a big challenge.

Michael recalls the "oh-oh moment" about a decade ago when his son raised the prospect of joining.

"It was something the family thought long and hard about but we were 100% supportive.

"I can understand the trepidation in nationalist families when this subject comes up - it is the most severe peer pressure."

The PSNI currently has 6,900 officers and publishes figures on their "perceived" backgrounds - 67% are Protestant and 32% are Catholic.

The dissident republican threat to officers and how the PSNI handles Troubles legacy issues are seen as major factors in Catholic under-representation.

"Security was a consideration," says Michael.

"We are parents. It is our job to worry. When there are incidents you wonder 'was he there or not'?

"But you get on with life and all you can hope is things work out."

The 50:50 debate

There has been a drop-off in applications from the Catholic community in recent years.

Image caption Catholics currently make up about one third of the PSNI

The 2018 recruitment campaign had around 500 fewer applicants than the year before and there is concern things are slipping backwards.

A debate around the re-introduction of 50:50 legislation has re-emerged.

The policy of balancing one Catholic for every non-Catholic recruit was ended after 10 years in 2011.

It is a political decision - one which unionists are not in favour of.

The PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has not called for it either, preferring to try to tackle the issue by other means.

Last December, the Policing Board was told the PSNI was establishing a new independent advisory group "to generate ideas".

It will not only look at problems attracting Catholics, but also working-class Protestants, women, ethnic minorities and members of LGBT community.

But Catholic under-representation is the most pressing concern.

'The police are the public'

How vocal will Sinn Féin be in encouraging young nationalists to consider joining when this campaign launches?

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Simon Byrne has said there is a "strong clamour" for more officers on Northern Ireland's streets

More than 15 years after endorsing the PSNI and the rule of law, the party's Policing Board representatives have not attended passing out parades for police recruits.

The new campaign will face more scrutiny than those of recent times.

This is largely because senior officers have warned Catholic representation is in danger of going into reverse.

When Sir Robert Peel founded modern policing he said the police are the public and the public are the police.

In contemporary Northern Ireland, the job of making the PSNI more representative of society is still a work in progress.