Skip to main content

The Police Service’s Strategic Community Engagement Team (SCET) hosted a Reference, Engagement and Listening (REaL) Event at the Policing Board’s Offices in Belfast on 03 August 2023 with representatives from the Catholic, Nationalist, Republican (CNR) community from across Northern Ireland. The event centred on focus group discussions linked to each of the five pillars contained within the ‘Here for You’ Engagement Vision, namely attraction and recruitment, engagement, neighbourhood policing, procedural fairness and local accountability.

The organisations in attendance were Coiste Na Nlarchimí, Community Restorative Justice Ireland, Falls Women’s Centre, Knights of St. Columbanus, Ladies Gaelic Football Association, Lisburn Féile, Ulster Camogie Council, Ulster GAA, Upper Falls Community Safety Forum, Upper Springfield Development Trust, West Belfast Partnership Board and Youth Action Northern Ireland. The Catholic Police Guild also joined the meeting.

Policing Board members Linda Dillon MLA and Mark H Durkan MLA also joined the event to provide an overview of the attraction and recruitment and procedural fairness pillars. Colleagues from the Board also provided input on the work of Policing and Community Safety Partnerships (PSCPs) around the local accountability pillar with ACC Singleton leading a plenary session allowing for feedback on all issues.

This summary document is intended to capture some of the important highlights and potential solutions discussed across the focus groups and plenary session. In broad terms, feedback from attendees at the event indicated that the five pillars contained within the ‘Here for You’ Vision are of particular relevance to the CNR community. Each of the five pillars are explored further below spanning a range of interlinking themes and potential ways to improve trust and confidence, including:

  • The importance of methods through which the community can seek to hold the PSNI to account both at a strategic level and locally with good practice in West Belfast highlighted as a model for other areas;
  • The need to continue to address barriers to attraction and recruitment such as through the provision of a dedicated Single Point of Contact within the Service for those within the CNR community considering a career in policing.

Attraction and Recruitment Pillar


  • Concerns were also raised that active recruitment by paramilitary organisations is ongoing within a number of working class communities. Attendees suggested that there is a need for the Service to try to combat this through more engagement with young people in schools. There was reference to some concern within the community around activities such as Lasair Dhearg writing to a number of schools in 2022 an effort to prevent outreach by the Police Service and opposing the “normalisation” of policing in education, claiming that children are being used as “part of a public relations strategy”. The lack of police officers living in working class areas was also discussed by attendees as this means that role models within the community are not present to help young people to consider a career in policing as a viable option. Recent events such as the attempted murder of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell in February 2022 have also served to highlight the dangers faced by Police Officers and Staff. It was also recognised that individuals joining the Service from a CNR background may have had to make “significant sacrifices” in order to pursue a career in policing such as leaving the area they were brought up in.
  • A further potential barrier to attraction and recruitment is the policy around Officers being required to inform the Service of any notifiable memberships under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. Notifiable organisations include the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Knights of St Columbanus. Another attendee also highlighted the lack of any messaging in Irish at the event, highlighting that greater use of the language could help to promote the Service as an inclusive place to work. There was also a discussion around the retention of Officers and Staff from a CNR background once they join the Service with the need to better understand their experiences highlighted.

Actions and Potential Solutions

  • Police Service statistics indicate that 32.49 per cent of Police Officers and 19.17 per cent of Police Staff are from a Roman Catholic community background (correct as of 01/06/2023). It is worth noting that the Service already holds some data around the socio-economic background of recent applicants to the Service. These are obtained by mapping applicants based on their postcode and respective multi deprivation measure ranking. The statistics show that 20.6 per cent of applicants to the 2021 Student Officer campaign applied from the 30 per cent most deprived areas in Northern Ireland. This compares to 19.6 per cent in the previous campaign; 36.8 per cent of applicants applied from the 30 per cent least deprived areas. The Service also compares applicants against what would be expected based on the population alone. Catholic applications were 362 less than expected in the 30 per cent most deprived areas in Northern Ireland compared to Protestant applications which were 164 more than expected. In the top 10 per cent most deprived areas, the variance between Catholic and Protestant applications has reduced compared to the last campaign.
  • The current challenging financial position for the organisation will result in some very stark choices around service delivery in the coming months; the Service will be unable to undertake officer recruitment for some time but there may still be some opportunities around staff recruitment for specialist posts. However, despite these difficulties the Service remains committed to engagement with young people, including across working class communities. The Service launched a new Children and Young People Strategy in June 2023. The Service is also undertaking a piece of work around an updated corporate approach to school engagement to ensure greater consistency. This is currently in the planning phase and SCET can provide an update around this work later in 2023. Furthermore, the provision of a dedicated Single Point of Contact within the Service specifically for those within the CNR community considering a career in policing may also be worth consideration.
  • The Service is currently conducting an internal cultural audit with a ‘Your Service, Your Voice’ organisation wide survey undertaken in recent months to help understand the experiences of those working within the Service today. The survey had a final response rate of over 45 per cent which is the highest of any employee survey undertaken in recent years with a series of workshops and 121 interviews also taking place with Staff and Officers. This will provide a wide range of information and SCET will be able to provide an update to attendees on the outcome of this work on themes relevant to the CNR community later in 2023.
  • A review of policy around notifiable memberships under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. This is already under discussion by the Service Executive Team and sentiment from the REaL event will be included in any decision making.

Engagement Pillar


  • Engagement with the Police Service was broadly described by a number of the focus groups in a positive fashion with the example of the West Belfast Community Safety Forum highlighted as a model of good practice. The South Armagh Policing Review was also referenced as a project which has helped to transform policing in the area. However, the legacy of the conflict was identified by the focus groups as continuing to impact on trust and confidence in the Police Service with concerns expressed around the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill which is likely to complete the final stages of its legislative journey in the September 2023.
  • Attendees also described the wider movement of Officers and Staff making it difficult to maintain relationships, particularly as different Commanders have different engagement priorities. They highlighted that engagement is often personality driven and dependent on NPT Officers and local communities working together.
  • A theme across the discussion groups also covered the need for greater cultural competence across the organisation, particularly around various aspects of CNR culture. A suggestion was also made that the Service should consider inviting community groups to be involved in the training of Officers and Staff, including new recruits within the Police College.
  • Attendees also referenced a lack of wider public understanding around how the criminal justice system operates. This was specifically referenced in relation to issues around drug dealing which continue to impact on community confidence. For example, there is a misconception that delays within the system are solely the fault of Police as a view exists within the community that arrests are made but individuals are then released on bail and cases are not being dealt with by the courts quickly enough. However, this is being exacerbated by the impact of insufficient resourcing more widely, including across the Public Prosecution Service and NI Courts and Tribunals Service.

Potential Solutions and Actions

  • Engagement is a central focus within the new Local Policing Plans recently developed by District Commanders, alongside Policing and Community Safety Partnerships, in line with the Northern Ireland Policing Plan 2020-2025. In addition, other points around ensuring appropriate handovers when Officers move on to other roles within the organisation to be progressed by Districts. However, it is worth noting that there is likely to be reduced staff turnover throughout 2023 and beyond due to the current financial position.
  • The SCET developed a specific cultural awareness session in August 2022 in partnership with the GAA for Area Commanders and District Commanders which took place at the Armagh City Hotel. The aim of this was to provide those involved with a better understanding of the work of the GAA as well as an opportunity for those in the Service to meet key representatives and facilitate improved communication for events within their areas. SCET to consider further cultural awareness events involving the CNR community and would welcome suggestions from attendees around the scope of these.

Procedural Fairness Pillar


  • Attendees discussed the need for openness and transparency in terms of the way in which the CNR community is treated by the Service. The issue of stop and search within working class communities was raised by the focus groups with many describing it as “counterproductive” and that it “feels like Police are picking on our community”. There was also a suggestion that Police Officers are “not stopping known drug dealers but instead focus on other members of the public” which creates a perception that Police are “working with them”.
  • There was also reference to a perceived lack of commitment to targeting drug dealers and the view that policing is still being directed by intelligence services which hampers both local engagement and neighbourhood policing. Concerns were highlighted that “both dissident Republican groups and Loyalist groups are being directed by intelligence services through the use of informers and known agents”. The example of Detective Chief Inspector John Caldwell was given as an example of how violence was being “turned on and off when it suited” which creates a feeling in the CNR community that most of the individuals involved directing these activities are working for the intelligence services in one form or another.
  • A number of further issues were raised, including two tier policing with the suggestion that there is a common perception that the Protestant Unionist Loyalist (PUL) community is treated differently to the CNR community. For example, it was highlighted that flags and banners erected by PUL groups which are designed to “mark out territory and intimidate are not dealt with by authorities”. It was suggested that the Service needs to improve its communication in terms of highlighting that the removal of flags is not the responsibility of the Police Service within the current statutory framework and can only act to remove flags where there are assessed risks to public safety owing to their erection. It was also pointed out that the narrative surrounding the high-profile Noah Donohoe case has also resonated with the CNR community and impacted on confidence in policing.

Potential Solutions and Actions

  • The Police Service developed the ‘Here for You’ Public Engagement Vision in 2022 to ensure a consistent standard of provision across the five pillars for all communities. SCET will develop further REaL events in conjunction with the CNR community. The Service commits that these will take place at a strategic level every six months at a minimum. These will focus on a range of issues and will be thematic with the potential to look beyond the five ‘Here for You’ pillars and examine specific issues impacting the community and other policy matters, significant incidents and police procedures where appropriate. This will provide a strategic forum for people from across the community to come together and have a positive influence on procedural issues across the Service.
  • The organisational use of policing powers is monitored by the Service Accountability Panel chaired by ACC Operational Support Department which also has its own Independent Advisory Group with external representation to scrutinise matters such as stop and search. The Police Service’s expectation is that Officers and Staff exercise powers and deliver services impartially, regardless of community background; this is a core value of policing acknowledged within our Code of Ethics and Competency and Values Framework. The Service is also working to address the recommendations made by the Independent Reviewer of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 relating to the impact of stop and search activity, including around the introduction of community background monitoring by the Service in the coming months. Further consultation will take place with the communities in advance of this.

Local Accountability Pillar


  • Feedback from some attendees indicated that there is perception in some areas of a divide between how rural and urban areas are policed with comments such as “there’s no PSNI presence” and “they are very rarely in the area”. However, others highlighted a positive relationship with Police in certain areas with the importance of strong community participation, leadership and key advocates for policing within the community also highlighted.
  • Attendees also reported patchy awareness amongst the community around the role of PCSPs and their remit in terms of addressing issues at a local level. There was a suggestion that those within local communities should seek to become more involved in their work.

Potential Solutions and Actions

  • PCSP recruitment is ongoing with members of the community encouraged to contact [email protected] and providing a name, email address and council area. More information here.
  • SCET to plan for the roll out of REaL events at district level in order to consult and involve the views of the community on local issues involving District Commanders and other key personnel which will help to further build relationships and improve local accountability.

Neighbourhood Policing Pillar


  • Neighbourhood Policing was recognised as being vital to the community with a range of positive initiatives highlighted by attendees. The turnover of staff was noted as making relationship building challenging at times and there was an emphasis put on the fact that good neighbourhood policing can be personality driven by individual officers. There was also a suggestion that some groups were unaware of the relevant District and Neighbourhood level Police contacts in their areas.
    Potential Solutions and Actions
  • The difficult budgetary situation facing the organisation presents challenges in terms of developing further specific training in the short to medium term. However, the eight Neighbourhood Policing Hallmarks launched in 2022 also provide a benchmark for consistent service delivery across NI. A new Neighbourhood Policing Faculty is also in development through the Police College at Garnerville to be launched later in 2023 which will place an enhanced focus on training around this important specialism.
  • The Service is continuing to develop a series of ‘Let’s Talk’ Briefings on topical issues aimed at Neighbourhood Officers and Staff to provide them with key messages they can proactively use in discussions with community groups and members of the public.
  • Contact details of the relevant District and Neighbourhood Teams across Northern Ireland can be found here.


The Service welcomes the participation of organisations representing the CNR community and the Northern Ireland Policing Board in the first series of REaL events held by the organisation. The Strategic Community Engagement Team conducted a post-event survey which received seven responses. 100% of respondents rated the Format and Quality of Focus Group Sessions as ‘excellent or very good’. 86% of respondents indicated that the CNR community finds their current experience of engaging with the Police ‘difficult’ with 14% describing it as ‘very easy’.

86% of respondents described the ‘Here for You’ Engagement Vision Pillars as being relevant to the CNR community and 100% felt that the event was useful for engaging with Police. There were a number of additional comments around practical support for the Catholic Police Guild and local level REaL events as well as around the attraction and recruitment pillar requiring greater focus in the longer term in order to improve confidence in the Service across the CNR community. 71% of respondents stated that they would attend a future REaL event on another topic and 29% were not sure.

However, we recognise that since this event was held the organisation has declared a critical incident following the significant organisational data loss of an excel spreadsheet in response to a Freedom of Information request on 08 August. We recognise that this has resulted in widespread concern across the Service, particularly amongst Catholic Officers and Staff, and within the wider community. The safety and welfare of Officers and Staff remains the Police Service’s top priority and the matter is also now the subject of an independent review which is being led by Assistant Commissioner Pete O’Doherty, the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead officer for Information Assurance.

The Strategic Community Engagement Team will endeavour to take forward a number of the points outlined in the potential solutions and actions sections linked to each pillar with further input from the community wherever possible. The team would appreciate any further feedback that participants have on this summary document. We look forward to holding another event where organisations will have the opportunity to hold us to account around delivery on these points.