Economic outlook uncertain
Conflicting economic data has presented an uncertain picture of the economic performance of the North's economy, with unemployment falling but industrial output down in the latest quarter. Despite the fall in the jobless total, the job creation performance of the economy remains lacklustre.
Unemployment has fallen to its lowest level for 18 years, according to the latest Government statistics. Under the new international definition, the number out of work and claiming benefit fell by 8,000 in the year to the end of June, and now stands at 51,000, or 6.9 per cent of the workforce.
The seasonally-adjusted claimant figure for July was down by 1,500 over the previous month, and now stands at 56,800, the lowest level since 1980.
For much of this time, Northern Ireland had the highest unemployment rate of any UK region, at one time approaching 15 per cent.
Today, it lags well behind areas such as Merseyside (11.3 per cent), the North-East (8.7 per cent), and London (8.2 per cent). The unemployment rate in Scotland is 7.6 per cent, and in Wales 6.8 per cent.
The Northern Ireland Economy Minister, Mr Adam Ingram, said he was "very encouraged" by the trend. However, he said that other statistics suggested that the economy may still be slowing.
"The Labour Force Survey indicates that total employment has risen by just over 1,000 over the year to June," he said, "while at the same time there has been an increase of 15,000 in the numbers who are economically inactive.
"The challenge of these figures is clear - a great deal of effort and commitment is required from everyone in Northern Ireland if further growth in employment is to be realised."
The latest figures also show that over the fourth quarter of last year and the first quarter of 1998, manufacturing output in Northern Ireland fell by 1.2 per cent, compared with a decrease of 0.1 per cent for the UK as a whole. Over the full year, however, output increased by 2.3 per cent, compared with a rise of 0.2 per cent in the UK as a whole.
There are 729,000 people in Northern Ireland who are described as "economically active". That is, they are either in employment, or unemployed. There are a further 501,000 people aged 16 or over who are defined as "economically inactive".