Recruiting more Catholics to PSNI should be ‘front and centre’ of political agenda, says former chief

Hugh Orde describes increasing numbers of Catholics in force as ‘key strategic issue for policing in Northern Ireland going forward’

Increasing the number of Catholic recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) “should be front and centre of the political agenda,” a former chief constable has said.

Hugh Orde, who headed the PSNI from 2002 to 2009, said if he was in charge now he would be “concerned” by the figures and described it as a “key strategic issue for policing in Northern Ireland going forward”.

He also said the attendance of the First Minister, Sinn Féin’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill, at a PSNI graduation ceremony earlier this year was “really important” and “significant” but “one could argue it should have happened earlier ... part of signing up to policing is taking responsibility and attending things one would expect you to attend”.

Under the 50/50 recruitment campaign, which ended in 2011, the proportion of Catholic officers rose from fewer than one in 10 to around a third, but has remained slightly static since; the current figure, as of March 2024, is 33 per cent.


A number of recent controversies, including last year’s “unprecedented” PSNI data leak, dented confidence in policing and had a particular impact on officers from a Catholic background.

Speaking to The Irish Times before a discussion at Queen’s University Belfast on policing and politics in divided societies on Monday evening, the former chief constable said he had been “lucky” his tenure coincided with the 50/50 recruitment campaign which attracted more Catholics to the force, and that the Patten reforms to policing were fully funded.

“I had the money to do what I needed to do,” he said. “Police services United Kingdom-wide are now suffering and recruiting is falling ... I was recruiting over 400 officers a year, that gave me a real opportunity. The police don’t have that any more.”

How might this be addressed?

“With difficulty.”

With the caveat that, 15 years after he left the chief constable role, he is no longer across the detail “and the last thing a serving chief constable needs is an old chief constable telling him what to do”, he emphasised political buy-in is key to secure the required funding “to even start the process”.

Referencing his own experience of recruitment, he said “there are loads of people from both sides of the community who, given the right opportunities, I’m sure would like to join, but we’ve got to get to the point where they look at the service and can identify it, and if you’re losing numbers [from the PSNI] it becomes harder every time.”

For this to happen, “the chief [constable] needs the politicians to find the money to allow him to do it,” he said, adding that “one would have thought [given] the difficult history ... it would be seen as a very sensible investment.”

There must also be community buy-in: “It can’t just be what the police do, it has to be what the police and communities do together.”

Reflecting on the challenges facing policing and society, he said legacy was “huge” and the “one thing that makes me cross” about his time as chief constable was the report which closed down the Historical Enquiries Team, the PSNI unit set up in 2005 to investigate unsolved Troubles killings.

“It left a void, and that void is yet to be filled, in reality,” he said.

Commenting on the new Legacy Act, which is facing challenges in the domestic and international courts, Mr Orde said his sense was it “has not been well received because of the way it has been put together” but gave his backing to its Chief Commissioner, Declan Morgan, and Commissioner for Investigations, Peter Sheridan.

“In terms of people who might be able to make this work I would have thought Declan Morgan and Peter Sheridan are probably two of the best possible names you could wish to have,” he said.

“Peter was one of the best assistant chief [constables] I’ve ever worked with, and has the pulse of this place better than I ever did, and Declan Morgan was a highly respected high court judge.

“It may work, I wish it all the best, but I’m not sure, I think it’s going to have a lot of challenges,” he said.

The former chief constable said that “in terms of policing generally, there’s a huge piece of work to do in the post [the murder of Sarah] Everard world around confidence” as well as a “huge issue about how we select and train our police officers” and a need to “get a sensible funding base for policing to enable it to deliver what is an ever more complex job.”

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times