ALMOST half of those living in Northern Ireland describe themselves as Catholic, but only 25pc claim an Irish identity, new figures show.
And more than one-in-five people consider themselves Northern Irish, the latest census conducted in 2011 has revealed.
Last year's census was the first to ask a question about national identity, revealing that less than half of those living across the Border regard themselves as having any British identity.
A substantial 21pc of people identified themselves as being just 'Northern Irish', as opposed to British or Irish alone.
And the gap between the number of Catholics and Protestants has shrunk to just 3pc.
Perhaps most remarkably, the statistics released yesterday challenge conventional wisdom – that national identity and religion are directly linked.
Catholics now make up 41pc of the population, or 45pc if you count people who were brought up Catholic but have now abandoned the religion.
That is up slightly from 40pc and 43.8pc in 2001 and is the highest proportion in this history of the North.
However, this high Catholic figure isn't reflected in an Irish national identity, with just 25pc thinking of themselves as solely Irish, while around 28pc declare some sense of Irish identity.
The Protestant population has fallen since 2001 to 48pc of the population, down from 53.1pc in 2001.
But only 40pc of the total population considered themselves exclusively British.
This rose to 48pc, still a minority, when multiple identities such as British and Northern Irish (6.2pc) were included in the count.
Queen's University academic Dr Ian Shuttleworth said he was interested by the numbers who chose Northern Ireland as their sole identity.
"It's a new question, but what surprised me was the size of the people who declared themselves to have a Northern Irish identity," he said.
He added that this group were "running the Irish part of the population – people who declared themselves as having an Irish identity – very close in third place.
"I was very surprised by that and I am not sure what that means."
This trend of a narrowing gap between Catholics and Protestants reflects long-term demographic shifts that are likely to continue.
Meanwhile, 7pc say they belong to another religion or none.
Other statistics show that the Catholic population is younger than the Protestant one, and it is already in a majority in the under-35 age group and in schools.
Protestants are dying off at a faster rate than Catholics because they are, on average, older. If present trends continue, Catholics will eventually outnumber Protestants in the North.
On the question of which passport people choose, a clear majority of 59pc said British, 21pc said Irish and 19pc had no passport at all.
The overall population of Northern Ireland has grown to 1.81 million, an increase of 7.5pc since 2001.