As the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast Agreement approaches, one of the first thing Police Service of Northern Ireland recruits are still taught is how to check under their cars for explosive devices.
This is happening at a time when there is concern that the drive to attract more Catholics into the PSNI has lost momentum, and may even have gone backwards.
Chief Superintendent Phil Knox is showing The Irish Times around the Northern Ireland Police College he heads, which is in Garnerville, close to the Stormont estate in east Belfast.
He says that during the 23-week training period the importance of personal safety is drilled into all students.
They learn about checking under cars, about not setting any detectable patterns of day to day living and the importance of taking different routes to work.
They are also taught about tactical patrolling, setting up cordons and protecting themselves and their colleagues.
Students are also warned to be hugely careful and discreet around social media use, and about what to say when someone asks the question: “And what do you do yourself?”
“We are very supportive on how to mitigate risks; we make sure student officers are supported,” says Knox.
And then they can focus on the gun. “They learn how to take it apart, how to reassemble it. They learn how to load the magazine, how to hold the weapon, how to handle it, how to draw it. Most of our students will never have handled a gun in their life before. The first time you ever touch a gun is relatively daunting,” Knox says.
“This is all about trying to teach somebody how to use a firearm on the basis that we hope that they will never use it but that they have the decision-making abilities within their minds to make good decisions about firing firearms.
“There are very few times when a police officer actually pulls a gun and uses it.”
The place is busy with students. Some are taking part in one-to-one tutorials, others are preparing for or taking classes, while some are relaxing in the canteen. Come summertime, it will be even livelier when another 300 student officers start to come under Knox’s charge and direction.
You can tell the students at Garnerville by their epaulettes, which instead of a number or rank have different colours denoting that they are trainees.
A lot is crammed into 23 weeks after which students who successfully complete the course – and virtually all do – are posted to stations around Northern Ireland.
Knox rattles off what they must absorb in such a relatively short period: the criminal justice system; the various crimes they must tackle; powers of arrest, entry and search; how to prepare a prosecution file; attendance in court; dealing with judges and prosecution and defence lawyers; forensics; how to manage a crime scene; how to detain an aggressive suspect; the needs of victims; how to use IT systems – and on and on it goes.
“After 24 weeks they could be knocking on your door,” says Knox.
It is only after completion of training and after two years on the beat that they can start diversifying into other areas such as detective work, organised crime, drugs, human trafficking and sex crime.
There is no hard-and-fast rule about what makes a good officer, he adds. “You can spot talent but that does not mean that that talent is always going to come to fruition. I don’t want to change students into robot police officers. They use what they have and what they know within their own background and knowledge to deliver an effective police service.”
While Knox is the person responsible for ensuring the 300 police rookies make the grade, the PSNI deputy chief constable Drew Harris is the officer responsible for trying to ensure that force is reflective of the community it serves.
Those 300 recruits are to be chosen from about 7,700 applicants. Almost 40 per cent of those applying were women, indicating that the policy of seeking to attract more women is working – women currently account for 29 per cent of the force.
Less than a third – 31.5 per cent – of current officers are from a Catholic background.
There have been some community warnings that the rate could drop to 25 per cent due to a Catholic reluctance to sign up. Harris doesn’t think that will happen because more Protestants are retiring as far more of them are in the older cohort within the PSNI.
In this next recruitment, the first since September 2015, applicants were allowed to complete an initial selection test online instead of having to go to an exam centre.
Consultants had advised that sitting the test at unfamiliar settings was a “chill factor” to some Catholics applying.
But still the number of Catholic applicants was just 31 per cent, in line with the current rate of Catholics in the PSNI, when Harris is fully cognisant that a more representative application rate would be about 45 per cent.
GAA pundit and former All-Ireland winner Joe Brolly's interview last October with Peadar Heffron, who was badly disabled following a dissident under-car bombing near Randalstown, Co Antrim, in January 2010, has sharpened the focus on policing and how the great hope and ambition of the Patten reform proposals that led to the creation of the PSNI have yet to be fully realised.
Heffron was a sort of poster boy for what the new Police Service of Northern Ireland could be. He was a Catholic, a fluent Irish speaker and captain of the PSNI Gaelic football team, who signed up just months after the RUC transitioned into the PSNI in 2001.
His willingness to endorse the new service seemed a positive portent. But dissidents wanted to puncture that sense of optimism and Heffron was deliberately targeted in the 2010 attack.
Brolly's Sunday Independent interview with Heffron highlighted how he felt badly let down by his former friends in his local GAA club, Kickham Creggans near Randalstown, Co Antrim.
More generally it demonstrated the risks Catholics must take in joining the PSNI and how difficult it would be for them to remain living in their nationalist communities if they took that risk.
And that threat hasn’t gone away, as Harris knows. He says that Brolly’s interview started a badly-needed conversation. “The article about Peadar Heffron did serve a purpose in terms of this recruitment competition and the wider debate about nationalist support for people joining the police service.”
He doesn’t have a fixed answer on how it can be made easier for Catholics to join. He cites how the “seminal” Patten report exhorted politicians, church and community leaders, and the education sector “to all put their shoulders to the wheel” to create a representative police service.
Here Harris is carefully critical of the North’s nationalist parties. “I think that given the extent of Sinn Féin’s involvement in policing both through the Policing Board and the DPPs [district policing partnerships] certainly more could be said around support for policing as a career,” he says.
“I would like them to actively encourage members of their community to join the police service,” he adds.
Harris also laments the lack of a working Northern Executive and Assembly and the fact that in the absence of Stormont the Policing Board cannot fully function. “It is regrettable those institutions are not there. I think there would have been more said if they had been in place and in some ways we have lost an opportunity here.”
Harris says the PSNI has a good relationship with the GAA and regularly advertises in its programmes about issues such as drug abuse, domestic violence and warning of the dangers of “one-punch” assaults.
In November, in the wake of the reaction to the Heffron interview, Brian McAvoy, provincial secretary of the Ulster Council of the GAA, made a strong and unequivocal statement at a conference in Armagh saying players should be free to join the PSNI.
“If any good can come of this sorry tale let it be that the message should be heard loud and clear that any GAA member who wishes to consider a career in policing should do so free in the knowledge that it will not impact in any way on the membership of their local GAA club,” he said.
The Sinn Féin and SDLP policing spokespeople Gerry Kelly and Dolores Kelly reject Harris's criticism.
“I have said publicly that I will give every practical support and advice to anyone who chooses a career in policing,” Gerry Kelly said. “I have also made it clear that everyone should be safe living in their area of choice.”
Both Assembly members also said that the legacy of the past and the continuing allegations of historic police collusion with loyalist paramilitaries was a turn-off for many Catholics. “Whilst it is right and proper that such exposure and resolutions are sought and obtained the continued absence of political leadership and agreement on dealing with the legacy of the past allows a one-sided narrative to be told,” said Dolores Kelly.
She said she knew of “some Catholic officers living in their communities but they are few” and that was because of the dissident threat.
Harris says officers “live throughout Northern Ireland” but implicitly agrees with Dolores Kelly by acknowledging the fact that Catholics from nationalist communities are more vulnerable than officers living in more unionist areas.
He says a higher level of dissident attacks are directed against officers who “because of geographical location are easier to target than someone living in North Down or South Antrim”.
However, Harris says Catholics feel “entirely comfortable” within the police service. “In no way is this a cold house for them. It is a good place to work no matter what your background is. In effect we are one team. We are very focused on our mission of keeping Northern Ireland safe. We take good care of our officers.”
The crucial issue for Harris is that the more representative is the PSNI the more effective will it be. “It sometimes gets lost but the operational imperative is that the strength of the team depends on its diversity. Your performance depends on the strength of the team and your performance then dictates how many people you save from harm. It just correlates along. Strong teams equal good performance and that is a good public service to society.”
He accepts there are particular challenges for those from a nationalist and Catholic background. He also speaks of the difficulty of getting people from working-class loyalist backgrounds into the service.
Policing, he adds, is a vocation that involves sacrifices and a degree of danger. He adds that gardaí dealing with gangland crime in Dublin face similar threats while acknowledging that a key difference is that all PSNI officers, unlike the gardaí, are armed.
“Policing is a very good career,” Harris asserts. “All sorts of opportunities and experiences open to you. I am not saying it is easy. Things that are worthwhile in life are not easy. Your life should have challenges and you rise to meet those challenges with a sense of fulfilment and that is what policing is about.”