LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A prominent Catholic priest in Northern Ireland has urged Catholics to join the province’s police force, saying it is an important way to push back against growing militant violence.

Father Martin Magill first came to national prominence when he celebrated the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee, who was accidentally shot in April by a member of the New IRA which was targeting police during a riot in Derry.

Magill called on political leaders to work to overcome the impasse in Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly, which hasn’t been able to form a government since early 2017.

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The priest spoke to the Belfast Telegraph after the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) placed a full-page recruiting advertisement in the program of the All-Ireland Gaelic Football Final, following a similar advertisement in the program for the hurling final.

Gaelic Football and hurling are played on an Ireland-wide basis – including teams in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – but are traditionally considered to be “Catholic” sports in the North, with Protestants playing soccer and rugby.

“The key reason for me encouraging Catholics to join is that we have a police service that is as representative as possible of the local community,” Magill told the Telegraph.

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 epigram for the conflict between Nationalists and Unionists which left over 3,500 people dead between 1968 and 1998.

The conflict ended with the Good Friday Agreement, and the eventual disavowal of armed conflict by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

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, the percentage of Catholics applying for the police service has dropped.

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“The reality is that it’s a very good career,” Magill said. “But there’s no doubt about it, there’s a concern that the number of Catholic recruits has declined.”

Although quotas have not been reintroduced, the PSNI’s 2020 recruitment drive is seeking to get more Catholics to join up. The head of the force has said he would like to eventually raise the number of officers from the current 6,700 to 7,500.

The recruiting drive comes as dissident republican groups that don’t accept the 1998 Good Friday Agreement have increased their activity.

Splinter groups, such as the New IRA and the Continuity IRA, have recently tried to kill police officers, with Catholic members of the PSNI often facing the additional risk of being branded “traitors.”

“So, there is a fear there, but I’m keen to encourage because it’s important that we don’t allow ourselves to be ruled by fear,” Magill told the Telegraph. “I’m keen to encourage people to find the courage to say, ‘Yes, I’m going to apply for the police service,’ because it does require courage because there are still people out there wanting to kill them.”

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The priest referred to the Ignatian spiritual principle agere contra – “to act against” – which means fighting behaviors that hold a person back from true freedom.

“The natural reaction in terms of the [Continuity IRA] upping the ante would be to draw back, to say no and to downplay recruiting. But, following the spiritual principle, you actually say in that case that we need to work even harder to encourage recruitment,” Magill told the Telegraph. “We actually need to put a greater focus on encouraging Catholic people to join the PSNI, now more than ever.”

The priest added, “let’s become more determined to encourage Catholic recruitment.”

Magill said Catholics must work to achieve a representative police force in Northern Ireland.

“We all must be the change you want to see. We need to get key people behind that, right across civic society, so we don’t leave it just to the politicians or church leaders.”

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome

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