As part of the peace process, the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is required to recruit equally from the Protestant and Catholic communities. Even though the Catholics remain in a minority within the province, the PSNI is required to recruit on a 50-50 basis.
In practice, this is proving hard, as many Catholics remain suspicious of the police. When it was the Royal Ulster Constabulary it was largely Protestant and many considered it to be partisan. Thus even now only 21 per cent of its officers are Catholic and PNSI has struggled to recruit sufficient numbers of Catholics.
But a novel solution has manifested itself courtesy of one of this blog’s favourite topics, immigration. The Times reports that “Nearly 1,000 of the province’s burgeoning Polish community have responded to a police recruitment drive – and they are nearly all Catholics. Poles accounted for 12 per cent of the 7,749 applicants…”
Is there no problem that can’t be solved by immigration? Our hospitals rely on immigrant nurses and doctors as well as porters and cleaners; the army has relied on recruits from the Commonwealth for years; now the police are recruiting officers from among immigrant communities.
Some complain that this undermines the purpose of the 50-50 rule because it is not ensuring that the police force adequately represents the Irish community. However, this is a mistaken concern. In many ways employing Poles is preferable to employing Catholic and Protestant Irish who have been influenced by the long period of “The Troubles”. Of course there is a need for both sides of Northern Ireland’s divide to be represented in the PSNI. But I can think of nothing better for the province than that hundreds of its police officers have never been involved in the conflict and are interested in nothing other than dispensing justice and upholding the law impartially and neutrally.
Of course Ian Paisley is correct (a sentence that I never thought I would write, even if I am in this case referring to the son of the DUP leader) to say that “You should not recruit on a religious basis”. It is discriminatory and should be illegal in any arm of government. However, Northern Ireland faces particular problems in which the police force is intimately involved. This may not be the time to stand up for liberal principles (another sentence I never thought I’d write!). As long as the quota system is a temporary measure that will ensure a balanced police force and so restore the faith of the Catholic community in the impartiality of policing in the province, it should be tolerated.
Sadly, experience tells us that temporary measures generate vested interests. I can well imagine a future where the PSNI has won the trust of the whole Northern Irish community, but where groups within the province resist efforts to end the quota system. This is the experience of Affirmative Action in the United States. Ironically, perpetuating protectionist measures tends to do more harm than good, even for those so protected. But if in the short term it goes even part way to shoring up the peace process, it will be a price worth paying.