At the end of the 1990s, one of the most intractable issues facing the Northern Irish peace process was policing. Catholics made up 45 per cent of the province’s population – but just 8 per cent of its police. The existing force was seen not just as unrepresentative, but institutionally biased in favour of the Protestant majority.
To address this, in 1999 the Independent Commission on Policing made a radical and controversial recommendation: in future, 50 per cent of all new recruits must be Catholic. Today, a third of all officers in the PSNI have a Catholic background.
In general, affirmative action is not something with which this paper is instinctively comfortable: we believe individuals should be chosen on merit not on the basis of their gender or ethnic background. But there are exceptions, and policing is one of them. That is not just about an individual getting a job, but about the police reflecting the communities they serve. So we have sympathy with the call from Sadiq Khan, one of Labour’s London mayoral candidates, to bring affirmative action to the Metropolitan Police’s recruitment system.
When ethnic minorities in London make up more than 50 per cent of the population, it cannot be right that less than 10 per cent of police officers come from those communities. And the police have failed to put their own house in order. The latest figures show that, since 2007, the percentage of black and minority ethnic (BME) candidates who have been hired has never risen above 20 per cent.
That is even more shocking when you consider that at recent recruitment events the police themselves point out that 50 per cent of people enquiring about becoming police officers were BME. None of this will be easy. But it is important. We are proud in this country, by and large, to have policing by consent. But that consent is much harder to achieve if the police look so different from the communities they are entrusted to keep safe.Reuse content