Catholic police in Northern Ireland

Following the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, Laurie Taylor spoke to Mary Gethins about the integration of Catholic officers into the Northern Ireland police.

By: Professor Laurie Taylor (Guest) , Mary Gethins (Guest)

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Laurie Taylor:
I'm not usually moved by public demonstrations of grief; those who turn out to mourn the loss of a celebrity or a public figure, so often seem to be responding to image rather than reality, substituting sentiment for authentic sorrow.

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But there are occasions when it seems as though a whole cross section of people have been so affected by a particular death that without prompting from press, politics or PR they take to the streets in a collective show of sadness and solidarity.

And such was the case last week at the funeral of Constable Ronan Kerr of the Police Service Of Northern Ireland.

News clip:
The political leaders of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic didn't just go to the funeral, they went together. Side by side they walked into the small Catholic Church in the village of Beragh. As the coffin of Constable Ronan Kerr arrived a guard of honour was formed by his friends - his police colleagues and his fellow Gaelic footballers. As a sign of unity they didn't stand in two separate lines but mixed together.

Laurie Taylor:
Mark Simpson there reporting for Radio 4. It was as though everyone in that congregation and on the streets outside recognised Ronan Kerr as a symbol of the new Northern Ireland, as though they all appreciated the danger which he'd embraced by joining the new police force; the difficulties that he must have had working alongside colleagues of a different religious persuasion from the former RUC.

And what made me, personally, particularly sensitive to such matters was a remarkable new book called Catholic Police Officers in Northern Ireland: Voices Out of Silence. It's also, and Mary Gethins begins, by chronicling the history of policing in Northern Ireland; the traditional Catholic mistrust of the RUC whose members were overwhelmingly from the Protestant community; the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the subsequent Patten Report which initiated the formation of the new police force - the PSNI - the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

PSNI harbour patrol Copyrighted image Copyright: Henry Clark under CC-BY-SA licence

Well when I met up with Mary Gethins at the British Sociological Association's annual conference at the LSE I began by asking here about the precise terms of that Patten Report.

Mary Gethins:
People could transfer across from the RUC but Sinn Fein objected very strongly that a lot of people were transferring across bringing their baggage with them. So they insisted that one of the terms - and Patten carried this out - was to have positive discrimination in terms of getting Catholics to join. So that is why we then had 50/50 recruitment as one of the basic requirements there.

And the idea was that by the year 2010 30% of the police population would be Catholic. Now they nearly reached that - it's about 29% - in 2011. The current Secretary of State Owen Paterson has decided to stop that recruitment.

Laurie Taylor:
Your research - you wouldn't to look at the experience of Catholic police officers in Northern Ireland - tell me how did you go about this, it seems a very sensitive, quite a difficult thing to do?

Mary Gethins:
Well it was and I did it I suppose because I was very enthusiastic about the peace process, having been a voluntary exile on this island and watching these atrocities daily, so I wanted to - I wanted to really ask the basic question: Why is the percentage of Catholics so low?

Is it the quality of life they have or is it the attitudes of their families or their politics or what is it?

So I just wanted to say: Why is this and will Patten solve the problem or will there be other difficulties along the way?

Laurie Taylor:
So how did you go about it - how did you find your subjects and what limitations did you have to observe?

Mary Gethins:
Well that was interesting. I had a neighbour that I knew very well - a retired police officer - so he got me access in principle. So that came very quickly.

But right through it I had gatekeepers and all this confidentiality, so on, going to a police station - if I'd made an arrangement to meet an officer, it was who are you, does he know you're coming and I had to ask could I park my car, well yes and what's the registration number or no we've got no space if it was in the falls or the Shankill - the police were suspicious of all civilians.

Donegall Pass PSNI station Creative commons image Ross under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license

So it was really quite difficult, although the liaison officer that was appointed to be the buffer did a really very professional job. But it was difficult really - I was quizzed as to who I was and why I was there.

Laurie Taylor:
One of the aspects that you were very interested I know to investigate was the people - Catholics - who joined the PSNI, almost their motivation for joining and the extent to which they were typical or atypical members of the Catholic community.

Mary Gethins:
Well there was a contradiction there. They were typical in the sense that they were born to Catholic parents - 92% of them - and by Catholic fathers - 98%, Catholic mothers. They went to Catholic schools, they were politically neutral, which was unusual and they said 50% of their families shared that.

But when I got down to asking them about their views and so on and their religiosity, if you like, I found they were very bad church attenders, they took a very liberal view but then I came to the conclusion in the end that that was a good thing because it was explained by fragmented identity and they were kind of extended Catholics, which I would see as a positive.

Laurie Taylor:
And inter-marriage as well you found, didn't you.

Mary Gethins:
Fifty per cent of them had non-Catholic partners but that was partly for safety purposes because as one told me, he said: "I come from a middle class family, I was mixing with middle class girls at a certain time and well they were fine, I didn't know what their friends were like and would they set me up." So it was safer to have a non-Catholic partner.

Laurie Taylor:
When they joined, tell me a little bit about the adverse effects that they felt of joining because they described these to you didn't they?

Mary Gethins:
Very much so, and sometimes in very poignant terms. One was that they were isolated from their families, they could not take the risk of continuing to live in predominantly Catholic areas, so they would have to go to safe towns such as Bangor or Coleraine or something like that. And they also had great difficulty attending family weddings or christenings or funerals.

There were so many sad stories about funerals, you know one told me about being in the room over his mother's bed and she's dead and looking across and seeing two people that he knew were in the IRA. So he went out of the room, into a bathroom, shinned down a pipe, into his car and sped off.

And when they were going to funerals they could either get police protection, but in some ways that would raise their visibility because police officers are fairly easily identified, or they could take the risk. So some of them couldn't get to parents' funerals and that was really sad.

But they did seem to accept that they had to pay a very high psychic price for being police officers.

Laurie Taylor:
So was there an element of altruism about their decision to serve, I mean was there an ideological imperative?

Mary Gethins:
Very much so, they had this enthusiasm about the peace process bringing about change. And one would have thought that salary and security - they did come in but the top one was always giving public service.

Laurie Taylor:
So they were - they were able to almost neutralise these attacks upon themselves?

Mary Gethins:
Well they were because they wanted to make a career of it and they wanted to stay but they did have other problems at work as well. They really resented the influence of the Orange Order and of the Masonic Order on where people were transferred - some of them were put to horrible back of beyond stations, others were favoured - and also in promotion - they felt that certain people were favoured.

Laurie Taylor:
Within the course of their work they're almost negotiating a new identity - an identity which is somehow acceptable.

Mary Gethins:
They talked to me about how they were received and treated by their cultural Catholics in the community. The Catholic population were quite hard to predict. Sometimes they would be very friendly but then if there was some event, for example, when the army had been called in and they found the army extremely insensitive.

Laurie Taylor:
Recently we learnt about the murder of a Catholic police officer - Ronan Kerr - presumably murdered by dissident Republicans, did you get the sense that an event like that would make a difference to the possibility of more Catholics wishing to join the police force, would that be something which would set it back?

Mary Gethins:
Well I think that over the last two years two Catholic police officers have lost legs in explosions and Stephen Carroll was murdered two years ago. But I understand that those did not put a stop on recruitment from the Catholic population and in fact I think that this whole coming together now at the funeral of Ronan Kerr is good news because you have the churches coming together, you've got politicians coming together from North and South and the Cardinal officiating at the mass, I think that's been very helpful for us all.

Laurie Taylor:
How integrated would you say the PSNI is now - is it unified, is it integrated?

Mary Gethins:
It is integrated. They did tell me that the most likely place to find sectarian comment was in the MSU vehicles - mobile support units. For example, when they were passing the Mater Hospital, which traditionally was a Catholic hospital, one colleague said: "That's where all the little stealing bastards are born."

But the colleagues got outside and started to hit the person actually and said and if you make a complaint we're going to say he did it first.

Laurie Taylor:
Did you have a feeling that what you were observing, although often quite tragic events, were almost teething pains as we move towards a successful police force respected by both communities?

Mary Gethins:
I do think we're on the way and if you think of the liberal model the only thing that we haven't got completely is policing by consent - community policing - and that's all about legitimacy. But I think now that Sinn Fein are on the policing board, that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister are getting on so well together I'd be very optimistic.

Laurie Taylor:
Mary Gethins. And I was talking to her at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association, which this year is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

This interview was originally broadcast as part of Thinking Allowed on BBC Radio 4, 13th April 2011.