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Last Updated: Friday, 15 April, 2005, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Solving N Ireland's policing dilemma

By Caroline Wyatt
On the BBC election bus in Belfast

"I had to leave my home in the Ardoyne, put my life and my family's at risk, but I have absolutely no regrets about joining the Royal Ulster Constabulary," says Brian McCargo, as he looks back on over three decades as a Catholic in the RUC.

Brian McCargo
Brian McCargo: Never felt discriminated against
Today, Catholics in Northern Ireland are again being encouraged to join the RUC's successor, the Police Service Northern Ireland or PSNI, which was created to help drive forward the peace process following the Good Friday Agreement.

When Brian McCargo joined in 1970, he was one of just 8% of Catholics in the force, from the nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast where joining the police led to death threats from paramilitaries.


But he insists he never felt any discrimination from his colleagues.

"When I look back at the horrors that were going on then, if you were sealing off a road because there was a bomb, you didn't care if the man next to you was Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim - you were both facing death," he recalls.

Today the centre of Belfast is remarkable for its normality - bustling with shoppers and morning commuters.

Mr McCargo says: "This was the most bombed area in Europe.

"At night in the 70s, it was like a cowboy film, with tumbleweed drifting down an empty street. Now, it's alive again and thriving."

Reforming force

Mr McCargo retired last year after seeing through the changes in the first year of the PSNI.

The reforms were not without controversy but he and many others believe huge strides have been made.

Your views on policing in Northern Ireland

Pauline McCabe is a 48-year-old civilian on the Police Board overseeing the new force.

"I joined it because I wanted to do something tangible to help this be a lasting peace," she says.

The PSNI has new targets for the recruitment of Catholics and Protestants, so the force more accurately reflects the community it serves.

It wants 50% of its new recruits to be Catholic.

"We want 30% Catholics in the force by 2010, and we already have 16.6% now. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go", says Ms McCabe.

Continuing mistrust

But are those in the areas worst-hit by the Troubles convinced?

On the Falls Road in west Belfast, republican murals still cover the walls.

Nearby, the Falls Community Council, run by Gerry McConville, works on all areas of concern to the local Catholic community - from drug abuse to finding jobs.

He says there is still huge mistrust of the police among the Catholic community. Nor is he convinced more balanced recruiting is the answer.

Mr McConville says: "If those people joining the police are middle-class Catholics, they don't represent the kids here. If you had young nationalists or republicans joining, that would be progress."

Caroline Wyatt and Gerry McConville
Gerry McConville: If local kids joined the PSNI that would be progress

But according to Mr McConville, that is not happening yet. He says the history of fear and suspicion of the RUC is hard to eradicate.

"We want good policing, but it would be a novelty for us. Because of what has happened over the decades, people have the idea that the police are not here to protect us. We have to de-politicise the police, and that hasn't happened yet."

Instead, he says, the community is beginning to find its own solutions.

"In the Catholic community, what people want is to feel safe to go out and safe in their home. So we are looking into greater conflict resolution by means of restorative justice, mediating between families who have problems or where violence is involved," he explains.


Yet working class Protestants in north Belfast share the desire to feel safe on the streets, and safe in their homes, even if their historic attitude towards the police force differs considerably.

Baroness May Blood
Baroness Blood: Loyalists considered the RUC their force

Baroness May Blood is a former community worker in loyalist areas who now sits in the House of Lords.

She says: "The loyalist or Protestant community had a deep affection for the RUC, and in many cases considered it their police force.

"When the name and the badge were changed, it went fairly smoothly. But the big problem is that during the Troubles we had police patrolling our streets every day.

"Now you very rarely see a policeman. From my experience on the ground, there is a growing lawlessness. Young people are growing up thinking they can do whatever they like, and we have to do something about that quickly."

One of the reasons for that smaller presence is the halving of police numbers to 7,000. Nor is everyone within the Protestant community happy with the new 50:50 recruitment rule.

"The reaction among the community is that they're more or less 'sectarianising' the police force," says Baroness Blood.

"Young people applying for the police are going through all that is required of them, only to be told at the last hurdle 'Sorry, we already have the required number of your religion'. That can leave a very bad taste."

Under the surface many voters want their day to day concerns addressed and mourn the absence of a local devolved government
Mark Devenport, BBC NI political editor

Baroness Blood decries the Catholic reluctance to engage with the policing process.

"The big stumbling block is that Sinn Fein will not come on to the policing board and will not accept the police. But it's a wrong assumption to say that Roman Catholic people don't want the police. Gradually you will see Sinn Fein take their place on the police board."

Many in the RUC mourned the loss of the force they served in. But Mr McCargo says if the changes help bring peace and prosperity, they are worth it.

"That would be the best legacy for the RUC - knowing that those men and women who sacrificed their lives during the Troubles did so for a lasting peace and a better way of life for all the people of Northern Ireland," he says.