24 February 2022, The Tablet

Catholic police in Northern Ireland seek to restart progress

Only a third of Police officers in the north hail from a Catholic background.

Catholic police in Northern Ireland seek to restart progress

PSNI Officers in Derry, Nothern Ireland, November 28, 2013
Greg Clarke/Flickr | Creative Commons

An organisation of Catholic police officers in Northern Ireland has vowed to restart stalled progress towards a religiously diverse police force in the six counties. The Northern Irish Catholic Police Guild, recently reorganised with an expanded committee drawn from all ranks of the police service, was founded in 2020 with the intent of providing pastoral support to existing police officers and promoting policing as a career amongst Catholic communities.

Presently, Catholics are underrepresented amongst the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), with only 32 per cent of police officers hailing from a “perceived Catholic” background – compared to 66 per cent from a protestant one.

In 2020, 75 per cent of new recruits were Protestant and 24 per cent were Catholic. In the last national census, held in 2011, 45 per cent of the Northern Irish population specified that they were Catholic or from a Catholic background, and 48 per cent were from a Protestant or other non-Catholic Christian background. The proportion of Catholics to non-Catholics at present is estimated to be even closer at present. 

Speaking to The Tablet, a committee member said that the group saw itself as continuing the progress made over the past twenty years in policing, encouraging more Catholics to apply for policing roles, and supporting those Catholics who do take up appointments as police officers.

Given the limited links between Catholic communities and policing as a profession, the committee member, who helped found the guild, the process of joining the PSNI can be a socially and spiritually lonely one. In reaching out to potential officers in Catholic communities, providing social, pastoral and moral support to those officers already in the service, and campaigning to change attitudes amongst other Catholics, the guild hopes to “continue the progress” made over the last few decades.

According to some Catholic members of the police service, however, resistance to the idea of the guild could be found amongst some officers.

Others were reluctant to join or publicly support the new group out of a belief it would undermine their career prospects. These “troubling” trends, they said, show the work that needed to be done to change attitudes within the service.

Traditionally, policing has been seen as a protestant profession in Northern Ireland. Only 7 per cent of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was Catholic as assessed in one 1996 study. The RUC was dissolved in 2001 and replaced with the PSNI, proposed as a cross-community body acceptable to protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists alike.

Under rules drawn up following the recommendations of Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, the new service implemented 50:50 recruitment policing, with the intent that “an equal number of Protestant and Catholics would be drawn from the pool of qualified candidates”. Under the policy, the percentage of Catholic officers rose from 8 per cent in 2001 to around 30 per cent when the 50:50 system ended in 2011. In spite of a rise in concerns over “sectarian” policing over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, PSNI leaders have so far rejected reintroducing recruitment quotas.

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