Students at Catholic schools in Northern Ireland should be encouraged to join the PSNI to help balance community representation in the force, the leader of the DUP has said.
Arlene Foster also called for senior nationalists and republicans to do more to persuade young Catholics of the benefits of becoming a member of the PSNI.
She made the comments after the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland called for the reintroduction of 50/50 recruitment in the police force.
Archbishop Eamon Martin said he had “concerns” about the future representation.
The recruitment scheme was devised by reformer Chris Patten 20 years ago in a bid to attract more Catholics into a force then dominated by Protestants.
However, it has not been in force since 2011.
Mrs Foster said that she recognises there is a recruitment issue in the police service.
Speaking at Stormont, she said: “We want our police service to reflect the community it serves, but I think there’s much more that nationalism and republicanism, especially in the leadership of political parties, can do to encourage young nationalists and young Roman Catholics to come and join the service of Northern Ireland and I hope they will do that.
“There’s also a need for us to be in Roman Catholic schools, in terms of policing, to tell young people how much of a good career it is for them and of course to take away the threat of violence because of course we all know that Roman Catholic members of the PSNI, and indeed the prison service, have been targeted by bigots.
“Let’s call them for what they are.”
Mrs Foster, however dismissed the idea of a return to 50/50 recruitment.
She added: “There is a job of work to be done in relation to this. I do not think that a return to discrimination is a way to do it, but I think there is a job of work to be done.”
Speaking to the Irish Catholic, Archbishop Martin said: “Because (Chris) Patten’s target of moving towards a police service that is representative of the society that it polices, I feel that in recent years it has reached a bit of a plateau and I would be concerned about that.
“It’s almost 20% short of the percentage of young Catholics who are out there.
“If you think of that age group of young people in Northern Ireland, almost 50% of those young people are Catholic and I think it should be a matter of concern, not just for Catholic communities, but indeed for the whole community.
“Because if we do not have a police service which is representative of the society that it polices, you immediately begin to run into accusations that the police service is not friendly to Catholic people, or you allow a vacuum to be created which allows others to exploit intimidation and fear in communities.”
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill backed Archbishop Martin’s comments, saying that has always been her party’s position.
She added: “We’ve actually put it directly to the new Chief Constable (Simon Byrne) whenever he came into post, that if you’re going to have public confidence in policing and its ability to deliver, and actually deliver on the new beginning to policing, then this has to be part and parcel of actually commanding that public confidence.”