The Irish Times view on An Garda Síochána: Move towards diversity is long overdue

Any police force must reflect the community it serves if it is to be effective in its role

Any police force must reflect the community it serves if it is to be effective in its role. Changes in the composition of Irish society during the past 30 years, with 18 per cent of the population coming from immigrant backgrounds, have not had an impact on the make-up of An Garda Síochána. That must change, not just to ensure better policing, but to reach out to the various communities and reassure them of their safety and acceptance.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has promoted this development, designed to bring about greater diversity within the force. The initiative goes beyond the headline-grabbing decision to allow male members of the Sikh community wear turbans while on duty and female Muslim members to wear hijabs.

As part of a recruitment drive that will employ nearly 1,000 additional gardaí between now and 2021, the intention is to look for diversity, not only through ethnic backgrounds, but by way of languages and technical skills. People who might not previously have considered a career in the service are being encouraged to apply.

For cultural and other reasons, less than 1 per cent of the force is made up of members with foreign antecedents. That small figure is the result in part of internal resistance to change and a failure of leadership.

When recruitment to the Garda Reserve was being promoted, resistance was such that a Sikh recruit was refused permission to wear a turban in 2013 under the uniform code. Management fought the issue to the High Court and won. The recruit dropped out.

Since then, many western police forces have accepted this religious-based Sikh practice within their ranks. Scotland has permitted Muslim policewomen to wear the hijab.

Such changes are welcome indications of a more open-minded approach to diversity. Some immigrants will have experienced oppressive police practices while abroad. Others will have been subjected to racial abuse here. A reassuring Garda presence is important.