by Gráinne Connolly and David Young PA
The attendance of a Sinn Fein leader at a police recruitment drive in Northern Ireland has been hailed as "seismic and historic" by the region's chief constable.
Stormont Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill joined Simon Byrne and other commanders at the event at the Police Service of Northern Ireland's training college in east Belfast on Tuesday morning.
Along with DUP First Minister Arlene Foster she posed for pictures holding posters advocating policing as a positive career choice.
It is the first occasion such a senior Sinn Fein figure has attended a recruitment campaign launch for the PSNI and comes amid concern that progress to address under-representation of Catholic officers in the organisation has stalled and is starting to go in a backward direction.
"I think it's seismic and historic in terms of the history of the PSNI and the commitment we have heard from Sinn Fein today, and indeed all political leaders who have joined us in this launch," said Mr Byrne.
🎥 @ChiefConPSNI Simon Byrne welcomes @moneillsf and @GerryKellyMLA decision to attend PSNI recruitment drive for the first time. He says it sends out a good message to the local community and hopes it will help attract applicants from a Catholic background. pic.twitter.com/AIJgvSJD0S— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) February 4, 2020
Police commanders did not know until less than an hour before her arrival that the republican leader would be attending the launch of the campaign to recruit 600 new officers.
Sinn Fein had previously been accused of not doing enough to advocate policing as a career.
Dissident republican targeting of Catholic officers is a key factor in the falling numbers of applications from members of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland.
Mr Byrne, who had urged nationalist and republican leaders to be more vocal in promoting the police, said: "We have called for that support in the past and now people have stood up to that challenge and stepped forward and are encouraging people to join the PSNI so I think it's an historic day not just for policing but for Northern Ireland."
Ms O'Neill, who was joined by Sinn Fein policing spokesman Gerry Kelly, said she wanted to achieve a police service that was more representative of the community it serves.
"Clearly the PSNI have launched a very significant, intensive recruitment campaign and we are here because it is no secret that nationalists are under-represented in the police service, that Catholics are under-represented in the police service and, if we are going to have a police service that commands community confidence, then it needs to be reflective of the community it serves, so we are here because of that reason," she said.
The Deputy First Minister said she wanted to see a return of the controversial 50:50 positive discrimination tool that ensures the PSNI recruits Catholics and Protestants in equal numbers.
She said steps also needed to be taken to address under-representation of women and members of ethnic minorities.
🎥 Deputy FM and SF vice-President @moneillsf says there’s a big issue surrounding the number of Catholic people getting through the PSNI recruitment process. Also assured media it wasn’t a last minute decision to attend launch of PSNI recruitment campaign. @ChiefConPSNI pic.twitter.com/CxImviotMW— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) February 4, 2020
Asked if she would encourage young Catholics to join the police, Ms O'Neill replied: "I think the fact that I am here today speaks volumes in terms of what I am trying to do - we need a PSNI that is reflective of the community in which it serves."
She highlighted that only one out of every five Catholics who apply for the PSNI is successful.
"There is a big issue here in terms of Catholics being successful in the recruitment process," she added.
DUP leader Mrs Foster welcomed the Sinn Fein move.
"I think it is important because there have been a lot of conversations about the fact that we need to have a police service that reflects Northern Ireland society so I think it's important that, as leaders, we show leadership and come along to these events to support our police service, so that is significant and I very much welcome it," she said.
She said the fact there were representatives from across society at the event sent a "very powerful message".
Mrs Foster said it was the "next step" in Sinn Fein's journey in supporting the police.
"We had been concerned that there hadn't been members coming along to recruitment and indeed graduation ceremonies so I welcome the fact that Sinn Fein are here today because I think it sends out a good message," she said.
🎥 First Minister Arlene Foster @DUPleader says it’s significant that Sinn Féin have attended today’s recruitment launch for the PSNI. Deputy First Minister @moneillsf attended the event, alongside party colleague and policing board member @GerryKellyMLA. pic.twitter.com/FwI7EtTYRM— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) February 4, 2020