LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A lack of Catholic officers in Northern Ireland may require the reinstitution of recruiting quotas to keep in place one of the linchpins of the 20-year-old peace process.

Just 20 percent of recent recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) are Catholic, despite making up 50 percent of the working-age population.

Stephen Martin, the temporary deputy chief constable, said “all options … need to be considered” to keep up Catholic representation in the force, including reintroducing a policy of insisting that all new recruits come from Catholic backgrounds.

“It is really important that a police service is reflective of the community it serves. It is important for sustaining public support and confidence and, indeed, actual legitimacy. So, we are under-represented in Catholics. We want to see more apply and we want to do everything we can to see that they are successful,” he said Oct 1.

The PSNI was formed in 2001 to replace the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), which had become distrusted by Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority during the time of The Troubles, the conflict between Nationalists and Unionists which left over 3,500 people dead between 1968 and 1998.

Most Catholics are nationalists, and many Catholic institutions such as the Gaelic Athletic Association banned membership to those belonging to the British army or the RUC.

“The old Royal Ulster Constabulary was only 8 percent Catholic and so had an unselfconsciously Protestant ‘ethos’, from which most Catholics felt estranged,” said Robin Wilson, the author of The Northern Ireland Experience of Conflict and Agreement: A Model for Export? and an expert on the region.

The lack of trust in the police force in Catholic neighborhoods meant the Irish Republican Army gained power as being arbiters in disputes, often dealing out a harsh form of justice to keep the peace.

After the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending most of the fighting in Northern Ireland, a commission was set up to reform policing in the region. It was headed by Chris Patten, an English Catholic who had been the last British governor of Hong Kong, and coincidentally would be called in by the Vatican in 2014 to lead a commission into communications reform.

The re-constituted PSNI instituted a 50/50 recruiting quota, so that half of new officers came from Catholic backgrounds. By 2011, fully 30 percent of the force was Catholic, and the quota was removed.

“Since then, progress has been at a snail’s pace – partly because of austerity measures introduced by Conservative-led administrations at Westminster since 2010 – and now only one in five of recruits is Catholic,” Wilson told Crux.

Wilson said that “the continuing rumble of violence by small Catholic paramilitary groups” is intimidating potential recruits.

When the quota was ended, the Irish bishops said it should continue and expressed “grave concerns” over the small number of Catholics in the higher ranks of the PSNI.

Catholic members of the PSNI say they have often faced ostracization within their communities, with Catholic social organizations still suspicious of those joining the police.

A 2016 report by Deloitte – Understanding Barriers Affecting Police Officer Recruitment – said the “opinion of family, friends and community compounded by negative images of the PSNI” was keeping Catholic recruits from joining the force.

The report also noted the police were not recruiting enough women and ethnic minorities, who are making up a growing part of the population in Northern Ireland.

“I would encourage people with influence within the Catholic community to encourage and advocate for people in this community to step forward and apply to join the PSNI,” Martin said on Monday.

“If that does not happen and our Catholic success rate were to continue as in the last few campaigns, it would be inevitable that in future years you might start to see the Catholic composition of the organization fall,” warned the constable.

Catholic politicians in Northern Ireland have strongly supported a return to the 50/50 recruitment policy.

“Sinn Fein have always maintained that 50/50 recruitment should not have been brought to an end,” said the party’s policing spokesperson, Gerry Kelly.

Sinn Fein was considered the political wing of the IRA and is now the largest Catholic party in Northern Ireland.

“It was there to make sure that the police service was fully representative of the community it serves. 50/50 recruitment was necessary to address decades of imbalance in the make-up of the police and was only one part of wholesale reforms in an effort to bring about an accountable policing service committed to policing with the community,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.

Dolores Kelly, who covers policing for the Catholic moderate SDLP party, said it is “critical to any democracy that the police service is representative of the place it seeks to serve.”

“The most effective and efficient way to ensure that the police service is representative in the North is through 50/50 recruitment. Getting policing right was, and is, critical for Northern Ireland moving forward. A return to 50/50 policing is both long overdue and the right move,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.

Protestant parties have opposed the quota, with one official from the ruling DUP calling it “institutionalized sectarianism.” The Police Federation For Northern Ireland, the union for members of the PSNI which was founded when the organization was still the Royal Ulster Constabulary, also opposes changing back to the Patten-era policy.

Wilson told Crux there is a “clear case” for the restoration of the 50/50 arrangement “to raise the Catholic proportion towards a level consistent with the labor force as a whole.”

At the same time, he said the PSNI should not neglect “the need to enhance the female proportion of officers (still under 30 percent), particularly at senior levels and the tiny ratio from ethnic minorities (around half a percent), so as to make the PSNI reflective of the community in the way Patten envisaged.”