By David Ford MLA, Alliance Party Leader
MUCH has been made of Alliance’s opposition to the use of 50:50 quotas to recruit officers to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, but a lot less has been said about what we have proposed as a replacement.
Unlike other parties which are content to shout ‘no’ at everything Patten proposed, Alliance believes that there is an alternative to quotas that is fairer and can achieve a balanced, representative PSNI workforce.
Equality isn’t just a simple matter of increasing Catholic recruits – although that is of central importance – but also attracting other under-represented sections of society, particularly women and people from ethnic minorities.
Out of 294 people from minority ethnic communities to apply to the PSNI since Patten, only four have been admitted. While half of all recruits must be Catholic, there are no targets set within the other 50 percent, meaning those from other minorities are discriminated against. It is hard to see why nationalists would want to see others suffer from the same kind of discrimination that they were often subject to, but clearly the use of quotas has a negative effect on recruitment from ethnic minorities. This is particularly disturbing when there is a real need to build confidence in policing in that section of society.
If we are to move towards a shared, pluralist and integrated society, it is important that we do not engineer artificial outcomes solely for the sake of a perceived parity between two sections of our community. Instead, we must encourage all those who are under-represented to participate in the new beginning to policing.
The numbers of Catholics who have applied to join the PSNI has encouraged Alliance. However, it is arguable that this has less to do with quotas and more to do with the new political circumstances we find ourselves in – especially in terms of the support for policing from the SDLP and the Catholic Church.
As a party that believes in fairness, Alliance has had major doubts about the use of discriminatory quotas since they were first proposed. We don’t believe that two wrongs make a right, but support the principle of merit – the best man or woman for the job. Quotas lead to resentment when those who are qualified are passed over because of their religion or race. We are risking a morale-sapping backlash.
Instead of quotas, targets should be set for the recruitment of officers from under-represented sections of society. To complement this, a strong programme of affirmative action measures should be used to achieve this. It is also difficult to see why the recruitment of back room civilian staff should be subject to quotas, when they have little impact in the discharge of policing functions and a staff shortage exists.
There needs to be better co-ordination between the Policing Board and PSNI as to who takes responsibility for outreach. Both need to work together on outreach to undo past perceptions of policing. That doesn’t just mean a glossy advertising campaign; it means getting out there into schools, for example, and letting potential recruits see how the PSNI operates now by showing officers at work. Education is important, but it isn’t just the police who have a part to play – only some Catholic schools will allow the PSNI access.
Patten himself foresaw quotas only as a short-term measure, not a permanent fixture. Our society is changing, but we are unlikely to emerge into a stable, pluralist democracy until we stop labelling people as one of them, one of us or nothing at all.