The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) deputy chief constable Stephen Martin would have been well aware that he would antagonise unionist politicians when on Monday he suggested that politicians may have to bring back 50:50 Catholic/Protestant recruitment to enhance nationalist numbers in the force.
And so it proved. DUP leader Arlene Foster responded that "discrimination in the form of 50:50 recruitment is not the answer" and that it would cause "more problems than it cures".
Her colleague, East Derry MP Gregory Campbell described 50:50 recruitment as "institutionalised sectarianism" while Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister characterised it as "draconian".
But when Martin went on BBC Radio Ulster’s talk programme, The Nolan Show, on Tuesday he held his ground, insisting that bringing back 50:50 could not be ruled out as an option with Catholic recruitment stalling or reducing.
Were Catholic numbers to mirror demographics in Northern Ireland then the Catholic representation should be 45 per cent, or a little more. But it is far from that.
The 50:50 system was introduced at the formation of the PSNI in 2001 and ended in 2011 when Catholic representation got close to 30 per cent. It is now at 32 per cent but, if current trends continue, the number of Catholics in the force of 6,600 members will decrease steadily and worryingly.
A police service must be “reflective” of the society it serves, said Martin, and he warned: “Broadly speaking, we can say over the last two or three years for every five officers who have joined four have been Protestant and one has been Catholic. Quite frankly that is not good enough.”
Martin, who is temporary deputy chief constable – he took over from Drew Harris who is now Garda Commissioner – also said on Monday that during the recruitment process Protestants were doing better than Catholics.
“What we are seeing is that those who are applying are being out-performed in terms of the processes by, I suppose, their competitors from the other community background,” he said.
In some quarters that conveyed the impression that Catholics were not up to the mark to serve as police officers. But that is not correct, as an examination of the recruitment campaign that began in 2015 reveals.
Then, of the 5,498 applicants, 3,590 were Protestant (65 per cent) and 1,749 were Catholic (31 per cent). However, to reflect demographics there should have been about 2,500 Catholics applying. And that raises a question about why fewer Catholics did apply?
There are a series of initial stages in the recruitment process, managed by Deloitte rather than the PSNI, such as form filling, carrying out an online entrance test, and being assessed on various examinations such as aptitude, judgment and intelligence.
This leads to the creation of a “merit pool” which is handed over to the PSNI, which then engages in vetting, including fitness and medical assessments of applicants, to determine who should fill the posts.
In that 2015 campaign, 637 Protestants and 222 Catholics reached the merit pool from which the PSNI is appointing about 350 officers, with more than 200 of them already on the beat.
Of the 3,590 Protestants who applied, 637 or 17 per cent made the merit pool while of the 1,749 Catholics who applied, 222 or 13 per cent reached the merit pool.
In percentage terms that is a significant difference and would suggest that if all those applicants were of equal merit, for every three successful Protestant applicants there would be one successful Catholic applicant. That would mean Catholic recruitment of 25 per cent, far below the 45 per cent demographic rate and also below the current Catholic representation figure of 32 per cent.
But when applicants reached the merit pool – which meant they all had the capability to serve as police officers – Protestants had the edge over Catholic applicants. All had merit, but Protestants scored higher at that stage of the process and therefore more of them got the jobs.
Here cultural reasons could explain why Protestants in the final furlong beat Catholics to the post.
As the SDLP's policing spokeswoman Dolores Kelly explained, Protestants can discuss how to approach such recruitment competitions with a father, brother, mother, sister or other relative who serves or served in the police. The idea of a career in policing was more in the DNA of Protestants than Catholics.
She knew of one Protestant applicant who applied seven times before finally being appointed. A Catholic was likely to be discouraged after one unsuccessful application, she felt.
Catholics might be too fearful of the dissident republican threat even to tell some family members, let alone friends, that they were applying. Without such support Catholics therefore appeared to be at a disadvantage at the merit stage of the process.
But why in the initial application were there more than twice as many Protestants as Catholics seeking PSNI jobs?
Again, as Martin acknowledged, it was not difficult to find an answer. It was down to the dissident threat; to Catholic officers often being unable to continue living in their home communities, and possibly having to forsake membership of their local GAA club or other sporting organisation. Or, as happened Constable Peadar Heffron who was badly injured in a dissident under-car bomb attack in 2010, possibly being ostracised by some members of your own parish.
The PSNI says it provides pastoral and other supports to persuade Catholics to join the police but it also acknowledges that seeking such a career requires particular sacrifices for Catholic recruits.
Privately, senior PSNI officers argue that regardless of “lip service”, those with influence such as nationalist politicians, the Catholic church and the GAA are not doing enough to encourage Catholics to take up a policing career.