Private Sector Revival Fires Northern Ireland Recovery

Output grows for first time since 2006 while dole queues hit new low.

Output from Northern Ireland’s private sector rose in 2013 for the first time in six years while dole queues are falling at a rate not seen for nearly two decades, cheering figures have shown.

But yesterday’s flood of mainly positive economic data did not include the construction sector, with output down nearly 8% year-on-year.

The monthly labour market report from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) showed a fall in the claimant count of 700 over the month to 57,000, with a total fall over the past 12 months of 7,500.

March also marked the first period since June 1995 that there had been a fall in the claimant count for 14 months in a row.

However, the separate labour force survey for December to February, which is based on a sample survey of households, revealed a slight quarterly increase in the unemployment rate to 7.7% – although there was a fall of 0.6 percentage points year-on-year.

Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said: “It is encouraging that the number of unemployment benefit claimants continues to fall and has done so in each of the last 14 months. This is the most sustained fall in unemployment claimants since June 1995.”

While Northern Ireland’s rate was above the UK’s 6.9%, she said it compared “favourably” with 11.9% unemployment in the Republic and an EU jobless rate of 10.8%.

But the figures revealed that Northern Ireland continues to have the highest rate of economic inactivity among 16- to 64-year-olds of 12 UK regions at 26.3%.

There were 552,000 economically inactive people from December to February, a fall of 10,000 over the year.

But at 23.1%, the youth unemployment rate for December to February was 1.8 percentage points over the year.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland construction bulletin showed that construction output over the final quarter of 2013 was down 3.7% compared to the third quarter, and down 7.6% on the same quarter in 2012.

However, the separate composite economic index for the last quarter of 2013 was up 2.6% year on year – its first annual increase in six years, and back to levels previously reached in the last quarter of 2010.

The enterprise minister said the increase in the economic index was driven by the private sector.

She added: “The continuing growth in the local economy is encouraging and there are many positive examples of local businesses exporting outside of Northern Ireland which have contributed to this.”

Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said the overall yearly rise in output had confirmed data from the bank’s monthly purchasing managers’ index, which had shown growth in the second half of the year.

“Whilst construction sector output continued to fall in the final quarter of last year according to the composite economic index, more recent figures from the Ulster Bank PMI give cause for optimism, with the PMI pointing to rising construction sector output each month since the start of 2007.”