Northern Ireland's police force will stop being required to hire Catholic applicants over Protestants following a decade of change that has bolstered Catholic support for law and order, the British government announced Tuesday.
Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson said the affirmative action policy in force since 2001 can no longer be justified because today's Police Service of Northern Ireland has risen to 29.76 percent Catholic. That contrasts with the 8.3 percent Catholic composition of the police force it replaced, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, in 2001.
Paterson said a decade-old policy _ requiring at least half of all job-winning applicants to be Catholic _ was "always intended to be temporary."
He said the practice of recruiting new officers from both sides of the community was "fully embedded" and police staffing now could be permitted to "develop naturally." He said the affirmative-action rules would be allowed to lapse as of Monday, March 28.
Reform of Northern Ireland's overwhelmingly Protestant police force was a central goal of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday peace accord of 1998. That landmark pact sought to build on mid-1990s cease-fires by the Irish Republican Army and outlawed Protestant paramilitary groups responsible for the bulk of bloodshed and more than 3,600 killings.
In particular, the Good Friday pact sought to address deeply ingrained Catholic alienation with Northern Ireland, a Protestant-majority territory that remained within the United Kingdom when the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence from Britain in 1922.
As part of reconciliation, the IRA renounced violence in 2005 and the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party in 2007 accepted the lawful authority of the Northern Ireland police for the first time. Protestant leaders responded by forming a unity government with Sinn Fein as the Good Friday pact intended.
Last year, crucially, their coalition received control from Britain of the Northern Ireland justice system, further boosting Catholic involvement in the police.
Northern Ireland's justice minister, David Ford, welcomed Britain's decision and said he was confident that the police would "continue to attract excellent applicants from all sections of our community without the use of the temporary provisions."
Northern Ireland's 1.7 million people are roughly 40 percent Irish Catholic, 55 percent British Protestant and 5 percent from immigrant and other groups that don't fit into the local sectarian divide. Ford said the police should increasingly recruit to ensure representation from those minority groups, including immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe.
The IRA, rooted in the most impoverished Catholic districts, killed nearly 300 police officers from 1970 to 1997 when it called a lasting cease-fire. It made life particularly dangerous for the relatively few Catholic officers, who couldn't live safely in Catholic areas and risked ambush if they visited relatives there.
IRA dissident groups today continue to try to kill police officers and have issued particular threats against Catholic recruits and police-reform officials. In 2009 the dissidents killed their first member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland: Constable Stephen Carroll, a 48-year-old Catholic from England.