Jobless rate hits 6.5% but claims rise
The unemployment rate fell in Northern Ireland at the end of last year - despite the loss of 3,000 jobs, official figures show.
The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) said the unemployment rate for November to January was 6.5%, down from 6.9% in the previous three months and 8% a year earlier - lower than the UK rate of 8.4%, the Republic's rate of 14.5% and the EU rate of 9.9%.
But the number of people claiming unemployment benefit increased by 200 last month to 61,400, the highest level since July 1997.
The unemployment rate is based on the labour force survey, which uses the International Labour Organisation (ILO) measure for unemployment.
Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey said: "Our policy makers would swap Northern Ireland's labour market conditions with the UK in a heart beat.
"Northern Ireland's labour market is not faring better than the UK.
"This is highlighted in terms of economic inactivity rates, productivity performance and the latest quarterly employment survey (QES)."
The QES, which looks at how many jobs there are, said there were 694,420 employee jobs in December, a fall of just over 3,000 over the quarter and just over 7,500 annually..
There were substantial job losses in the services sector, which shed 2,800 posts, while 940 jobs went in construction. In the three months to December, there were 980 jobs lost in the public sector compared to private sector losses of 2,220 jobs.
But there was good news as manufacturing - including food, engineering and pharmaceuticals - enjoyed its third successive quarter of growth and gained just over 700 jobs.
Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said the growth demonstrated "the resilience of the sector" and the advantages of focusing on exports.
She welcomed the fall in the unemployment rate but said the increase in claimant count highlighted "continued pressures on the labour market".
The economic inactivity rate remained at 27.2% and was still the highest out of all 12 UK regions.
FSB policy chair Wilfred Mitchell said: "Economic growth is being stifled by unemployment and urgent robust action must be taken to rectify this situation."
Northern Bank chief economist Angela McGowan (left) said Northern Ireland's unemployment rate was "relatively low" compared to other advanced economies.
"There are a number of reasons for this, including stable public sector employment combined with active labour market policies that are currently being pursued by local government."