SIGNIFICANTLY more people in Northern Ireland consider themselves British as opposed to Irish, answers to a new census question have indicated.
Contrary to some traditional perceptions, the expression of national identity does not appear to correlate directly with religious breakdown, as the gap between the proportion of Catholics and Protestants in the region's population has narrowed to just 3%.
According to the figures from the 2011 Census, which were released today, the percentage of people who are either Catholic or brought up Catholic in Northern Ireland has risen to 45% while the Protestant representation has continued to decline, falling to 48%.
However, the question on national identity showed that 40% of the population said they were British only, 25% said they were Irish only and 21% said they were only Northern Irish.
Last year's census was the first time the question of national identity was asked.
The answers provide arguably the most accurate reflection of attitudes to national identity ever collated in Northern Ireland because, unlike other surveys on the constitutional position in recent years, it polled the entire population.
Demographically, Northern Ireland's population has increased by 7.5% to 1.811 million since the 2001 Census.
That survey 11 years ago recorded the religious breakdown as 44% Catholic and 53% Protestant.
The 2011 survey witnessed a significant increase in residents of other religions or none.
On the national issue, people were able to define themselves as having one identity only or choose a variety of terms with which to describe themselves.
In terms of those who opted for a mixed or overlapping identity, just over 6% said they were British and Northern Irish only, just over 1% as Irish and Northern Irish only with almost the same proportion defining themselves as British, Irish and Northern Irish only.
Less than 1% said they were British and Irish only with 5% defining themselves as others.
Adding up the results, 48% of the population consider themselves to be wholly or part British and 28% said they were wholly or part Irish.
A greater proportion (29%) stated Northern Irish as either the only or one of the identities that define them.
As might be expected, the census showed stark differences across the region.
The council area with the greatest proportion calling themselves British only was Carrickfergus (62%) with the highest prevalence of Irish only identities in Derry (52%).
Queen's University academic Dr Ian Shuttleworth said he was interested by the number who chose Northern Ireland as their sole identity.
"The thing that really surprised me, it's a new question, but what surprised me was the size of the people who declared themselves to have a Northern Irish identity, which is sort of running the Irish part of the population - people who declared themselves as having an Irish identity - very close in third place," he said.
"I was very surprised by that and I am not sure what that means."
The census showed that almost 60% of the population held a UK passport, 21% had an Irish passport and 19% had no passport.
In regard to the changing religious make-up, generational differences appear to have been key.
Head of census at the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA) Robert Beatty said the age profile of the respective communities was likely to be a factor.
While an age breakdown based on religion has not yet been published for the 2011 Census, the trends identified in the 2001 census - which indicated a lot more of the older population was Protestant - are instructive.
"If you look at the age profile of the Protestant people - those who belong or were brought up as Protestant - in 2001 and the age profile of the Catholics in 2001," said Mr Beatty.
"Given the older age profile of Protestants you would expect mortality to have a bigger effect on Protestants - more Protestants will die proportionately than Catholics.
"And also we have the (separate) publication of the school census which shows a Catholic majority in school-age children.
"So if you bring those two together I think the expectation would have been a narrowing of the gap."
Migration may also have played a role in the declining Protestant population.
Other census results released today show:
:: English was not the main language for 3.1% of residents aged three or over - a quarter of whom live in Belfast;
:: The most prevalent main language other than English was Polish, with 17,700 speakers (1%);
:: Among residents aged three and over, 11% had some ability in Irish while 8.1% had some ability in Ulster Scots;
:: More than one in five people have a long-term health problem or disability which limited their day to day activities;
:: The number of households rose by 12% to 703,300 - the majority of those (37%) were detached houses or bungalows;
:: The number of households renting from a private landlord soared by 128% from 2001, increasing from 41,700 to 95,200;
:: Almost a third of the population aged 16 or over (29%) have no qualifications.