New Chief – Old Challenges: Let’s talk about policing – By Johnny Byrne

In his closing remarks to the Northern Ireland Policing Board in June, the former Chief Constable called on the broader Nationalist and Republican institutions to do more to encourage people from a similar background to consider a career in policing. Likewise, in his first communiqué as Chief Constable, Simon Byrne stated that there was “more work to do to improve how representative the organisation is of the communities in which it serves.” Together, these statements raise significant concerns as to why there are not more potential candidates from a Catholic background applying to the PSNI.

The importance of composition in policing is well rehearsed and we are aware of the challenges and sacrifices the organisation, elected representatives and wider civil society have made in terms of policing reform, and the attempts to make the PSNI more representative. One such vehicle for transformation was the controversial policy of 50:50, implemented at a time when Catholic representation had not exceeded 8%. Following a public consultation on the policy in 2011, which attracted only 162 responses, the then NI Secretary, Owen Paterson asserted that ‘now was the right time to end the policy as almost 30% of officers are from a Catholic background.’

Currently, 32% of officers within the PSNI are from a Catholic background. However, there are concerns about what the composition will look like over the next two decades, as previous recruitment campaigns have revealed that approximately one in five candidates at the final merit pool stage are Catholic. It is important to note that one of the main reasons cited for this figure (32%) is the fact that the majority of retiring officers, of which there is a significant number, are from non-Catholic backgrounds.

Evidently, there is a recognition that something has to change, particularly as the current trajectory suggests that the legitimacy of the organisation will be challenged on the grounds of its future composition. So what are the underpinning issues that may (or may not) be inhibiting those from the Catholic community seeking a career within the PSNI?

Firstly, there is no doubt that legacy and the role of the PSNI in coroner inquests and Ombudsman investigations for example, is polluting the contemporary policing landscape. Collectively, these issues are making it increasingly difficult to distinguish ‘old policing’ from ‘new policing.’ Indeed, this is a perception that is more acute within Nationalist and Republican communities, where the constant drip-feed of negativity surrounding the police in historical investigations (i.e. Loughinsland, Sean Graham bookmakers on the Ormeau Road) serves to discourage those born after the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement to consider a career in the police service.

Secondly, there is a school of thought that those from a Catholic background lack the cultural knowledge and understanding about the profession of policing, whereas it is assumed that the Protestant and Unionist community are more connected to the profession, with generational and cultural links to the police that are historical in nature. In that respect, one could assume that this community has a greater degree of clarity around what the job entails; that they understand the police culture; can complete or be assisted with the application/recruitment process; and are more aware of the potential impact of the profession on their personal life.

Thirdly, the actions of violent ‘dissident Republicans’ which target Catholic police officers and/or their family members is surely a factor when people from that constituency consider applying to the PSNI. Although this threat is real for all officers, it is more likely that those from a Catholic background will have to relocate from their family home and reassess their peer networks and recreational/sporting associations. In addition, these officers will also have to consider security implications, which may impact on their ability to attend family events or socialise in the neighbourhood where they grew up.

Finally, there is a still a clear and present cultural disconnect between Nationalist and Republican communities and policing more generally. In reality, after decades of ‘peace’ we have yet to embed policing within those communities that were disconnected from the service during the conflict. Put simply, it is still considered an unacceptable career choice in some places, where people still mutter – “you won’t believe whose son/daughter has joined the cops.” Evidently, there is still a reluctance to fully embrace the PSNI as ‘our police service,’ despite the evidence pointing to a successful reform process.

In a similar vein, there is also a sense within some schools and colleges that policing is rarely discussed, explored or promoted as a career choice in comparison to other emergency services or vocational jobs. Consequently, this lack of awareness about the profession may serve to maintain the stigma and suspicion associated with the PSNI for generations to come; which may deter potential Catholic candidates from applying to the PSNI, because they fail to identify with the organisation and feel that it fails to fully represent ptheir sense of culture and tradition.

Whilst the above points are merely observations and thoughts, they do however draw attention to the barriers and challenges, which may be inhibiting Catholics from joining the PSNI. If the PSNI is to become and remain, more representative of the communities in which it serves, it is clear that we need to move beyond finger pointing and calling for the re-introduction of 50:50 – the ‘quick fix’ approaches which do nothing to address the long-term, systemic problems inherent in the implementation of our peace and political processes.

Undoubtedly, this is a sensitive and complicated topic, which requires a mature, comprehensive, and evidence based discussion with stakeholders who have the capacity and influence to effect change. No longer can we assume that single, isolated actions will transform the situation today and in the future. For example, one should not assume that gestures such as Sinn Féin attending the PSNI attestation ceremony for new officers (as significant as that may be), would lead to a dramatic change in the composition of the PSNI. Likewise, acknowledging and addressing the forest of flags that adorn lampposts on the roads around the PSNI Training College is not going to make Nationalists and Republicans more comfortable about joining the police. Nor, will removing the responsibility of legacy from the doors of the PSNI result in an avalanche of applications from the Catholic community.

Rather, we need to be realistic about the prevailing problems and acknowledge that the factors that may deter members of the Catholic community are wide-ranging and deeply embedded. Yet, the one thing we can be clear about is that the PSNI and the peace process are inextricably linked, warnings have been sounded and this is certainly not a case of crying wolf.

One thought on “New Chief – Old Challenges: Let’s talk about policing – By Johnny Byrne

  1. Jonny – in September we are 20 years beyond Patten. The issues you raise – and other concerns – should be part of some organised review of the policing project. Once again, there is a need for big conversations. These things won’t fix themselves. You mention legacy. What has the the Policing Board contributed to that debate? On another matter, can you have new policing alongside MI5? The disconnect you mention goes wider than the republican community. Patten made the point that success depended on depoliticisation. That hasn’t happened. The report also made the point that policing is bigger than the police; that others have responsibilities. Twenty years on, the question is this: Do we want new policing and what are we prepared to do to help shape that future? Barney

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