There has been an increase in the number of Catholics applying to be police officers in Northern Ireland.

Preliminary figures released by the PSNI reveal that 2,158 Catholics have applied in the latest recruitment campaign which closed yesterday.

The figure is up from 1,935 in the last campaign two years ago, but the Catholic percentage of the total applications is unchanged at 31%.

The overall number of applications, 6,961, is up by just over 11% on the 2018 recruitment campaign.

There has also been an increase of 3% in the number of women applicants.

The PSNI is aiming to recruit 600 new officers, with the first batch of new recruits due on the streets in around a year.

Senior officers have been expressing concern for some time that the number of Catholics within its ranks could fall in the near future.

There was a clear sense of relief today that the figures have increased, even if the percentage is the same.

Earlier this month, Sinn Fein attended the launch of the PSNI recruitment campaign for the first time.

The party's leader in Northern Ireland, Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill, and its policing spokesman Gerry Kelly, posed for photographs holding a poster promoting the PSNI as a positive career choice.

Chief Constable Simon Byrne described their attendance as "seismic and historic."

A short time later they were both told by the police that they were under threat from dissident republicans.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton today said he could not be sure if Sinn Féin's participation in the event was a factor in the rise in the number of Catholic applicants.

"I can't truthfully say what motivates any individual to join the police so I can't say if that had an impact," he said.

"But what we had that day was representatives from right across the community coming together to endorse the police as a career and that was a good thing.

"I think any employer in Northern Ireland who gets nearly seven thousand applications for jobs in three weeks would be very pleased."

Mr Hamilton said the PSNI wants to see an increase in the percentage of applications from Catholics as well as the numbers.

He insisted the PSNI was not overly concerned that the ongoing threat from dissident republicans would result in a decline in applications.

"That threat affects all police officers, irrespective of their background," he said.

"These figures show that the community at large wants to move past this and are more interested in protecting their communities than giving into this kind of stuff."

Sinn Féin backs the return of the controversial 50:50 positive discrimination tool that required the PSNI to recruit Catholics and Protestants in equal numbers.

Historically, only one in five Catholics who apply to join the PSNI are successful.