Survey proof support for Union waning: Sinn Fein
Sinn Fein has said that a new survey showing that half of Northern Ireland's population identify as neither unionist nor nationalist is further proof that majority support for the Union no longer exists.
The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that the number of people last year describing themselves as neither unionist nor nationalist was 50%, compared to 33% in 1998.
Alliance leader Naomi Long said that the veracity of the research's findings was clear in the growth of support for her party in last month's council and EU elections.
And DUP MLA Christopher Stalford said the survey reflected a changing society and the need to make Northern Ireland a home for everyone.
The survey of social attitudes was conducted by Ark - an initiative between Queen's University and Ulster University - with academics interviewing 1,201 people.
The BBC reported that 26% of interviewees described themselves to be unionists while 21% identified as nationalists. Women were more likely than men to consider themselves neutral on the Union, with 55% saying they were neither unionist nor nationalist, compared to 45% of men.
While there was just a 2% difference between the number of men and women who identified as nationalist - 22% and 20% respectively - there was a far bigger gap across the political divide.
A total of 31% of men described themselves as unionist, compared with 23% of women.
Those aged 65-plus were also more likely to consider themselves either unionist or nationalist. The age group with the highest number of people not identifying with either label was 35-to-44-year-olds, ahead of their 25-to-34-year-olds by 10 percentage points.
A total of 64% of non-religious people said they were neither unionist nor nationalist, compared with 48% of Catholics and 42% of Protestants.
Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin said: "Consistent with recent election results, this survey is further confirmation that the majority in support of a Union with Britain no longer exists.
"However, the only way to truly and democratically measure constitutional preferences is through an Irish unity referendum. Given the clearly changed political and demographic landscape, both governments should now begin planning for such a poll."
Mrs Long said: "The growth in those who do not identify as either unionist or nationalist was evidenced by last month's election results, in which middle ground parties were the big winners.
"The increase in the Alliance vote did not come at the expense of other parties who do not identify along those lines, indicating an overall growth and laying down a challenge for the political structures here, which rely heavily on traditional community identity."
Mr Stalford said: "The best way to protect the Union is to build a Northern Ireland where everyone feels comfortable. One identity must not dominate the other. We are part of the UK and whilst people may not define as unionist, they equally don't declare their support for a united Ireland.
"Most people just want to get on with their lives, have their identity respected and live in a society which is fair and balanced."