DUP leader Arlene Foster has come out against the reintroduction of 50:50 Protestant-Catholic recruitment into the PSNI after it said it was considering reintroducing the measure.
Recent efforts have struggled to sign up enough Catholics, with only one in five successful in normal recruitment.
Temporary Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin refused to rule out a return to the Patten-era recruitment technique, but DUP leader Arlene Foster MLA instead called for an examination of the issues of why Catholics are not seeking to join the police.
“I’m all up for that discussion as a political leader but discrimination in the form of 50:50 recruitment is not the answer,” she said. “It causes more problems than it cures.
“People should be appointed on merit, not on the basis of what church they attend or their religious affiliation. I do want to see more Catholic officers join the force especially in communities such as where I live; the police service should be reflective of the community it serves.”
ACC Martin called for nationalist community leaders to help. “I would encourage people with influence within the Catholic community to encourage and advocate for people in this community to step forward and apply to join the PSNI,” he said.
However the largest nationalist party - Sinn Fein - came under fire once again yesterday for refusing to call on Catholics to join up.
Former Police Federation chairman Jimmy Spratt slammed Sinn Fein for failing to make a direct appeal to its voters. “Sinn Fein only paid lip service to this during my time on the Policing Board,” he said.
Sinn Féin Policing Spokesperson Gerry Kelly MLA said Mr Spratt “completely misses the point” - that 50/50 recruitment was necessary to address decades of imbalance.
However Mr Kelly still maintained it was the responsibility of the PSNI to proactively “encourage young Catholics to join the service” and that “no political party recruits for the PSNI”.
UUP policing spokesman Alan Chambers MLA said his party supports measures to recruit more Catholics but opposes 50:50.
ACC Martin said it was imperative that nationalist leaders back call for people to join up.
“If that doesn’t happen and our Catholic success rate were to continue as in the last few campaigns, it’d be inevitable that in future years you might start to see the Catholic composition of the organisation fall.
“That would be unacceptable and I think in those circumstances all options would need to be considered,” he said.
The 50/50 mechanism was established to rebalance a force largely comprised of members of one side of the community.
Nationalist politicians viewed it as a success, but unionists said it unfairly discriminated against Protestants.
Mr Martin noted it delivered an increase in Catholic representation from 8% to 32%.
A report by consultants Deloitte – Understanding Barriers Affecting Police Officer Recruitment – into more recent issues found that the opinion of family and friends sometimes deterred members of the Catholic community from joining.
The report also said many Catholic applicants dropped out of the recruitment process ahead of the initial selection test because they were hiding their application and did not want to attend an exam centre.
Steps to address that include taking the test online.
With the dissident republican threat continuing, Mr Martin said the ability of Catholic officers to travel comfortably into all communities is playing a part in their decision-making.
Mr Martin said bringing back 50/50 was a political decision.
“I don’t think we should be dismissing any option if we started to see the Catholic composition rate continue to stall or indeed fall,” he said.
The latest recruitment drive is seeking 400 new officers to replace those who are leaving, to keep the force at around 6,600.
That will represent, by next March, a reduction of 100 officers.
Mr Martin said: “We are reducing because of affordability, not because of operationally thinking it is prudent or appropriate.”
Former Policing Board vice chair Denis Bradley said last year that Catholic PSNI officers are mainly still unable to live in nationalist areas of NI.