Fears that the Northern Ireland economy is stumbling into the worst crisis in living memory have been fuelled by a grim new set of dole queue statistics.
With unemployment surging in the opposite direction from Great Britain, questions will again be asked over the Cameron Government's attitude to the province.
The number of unemployment benefit claimants here jumped by 11.8% in a year — while the UK-wide figure fell by 7.6% over the same period.
And it's being predicted that the local jobless total will keep on climbing from its current level of some 57,000 to top the 70,000 mark in the next 18 months.
Last week experts surveyed by the Belfast Telegraph warned that Northern Ireland is facing much greater pain from Government spending cuts due to its reliance on public expenditure.
Their bleak assessments highlighted the need for Government strategies to help the province cope with the challenges and begin the process of rebuilding its economy.
Critics of the Cameron Government say its insistence on large-scale cutbacks in all regions will prove especially disastrous and unsuitable here.
It has promised policy initiatives for Northern Ireland, not least a major study on the feasibility of a special low corporation tax rate.
But doubts remain on whether this measure is practicable and deliverable in time to meet the growing economic difficulties.
The official statistics released yesterday showed that the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits stood at 56,800 in July 2010 — up 800 (1.4%) over the month.
This was the highest monthly increase in the level of unemployment benefit claimants among the 12 UK regions, with the UK as a whole recording a monthly decrease of 0.3%.
Over the year, the Northern Ireland claimant count increased by 6,000 — 11.8% — compared to a decrease of 7.6% across the UK.
Ulster Bank chief economist Richard Ramsey painted a depressing picture of the province's economic prospects.
He said: “The latest rise in unemployment comes as no surprise and confirms the beginning of the secondary surge in unemployment that we have been flagging for some time.
“The unemployment register now stands at 56,800 and this is anticipated to rise above 70,000 over the next 18 months or so.” Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster commented: “It has been well documented that those leaving full-time education have been finding it difficult to obtain permanent employment in Northern Ireland and this seems to be reflected in July's claimant count results.
“It is also clear that the local labour market has been particularly hit by the fallout from the global recession.”
Mrs Foster added: “The annual increase of 6,000 in unemployment benefit claimants in Northern Ireland was the largest of the UK regions.
“Sales and unskilled occupations were the hardest hit during this time, accounting for over 60% of the annual rise in unemployment.
“Trading conditions remain extremely challenging for our businesses and the impending public sector spending cuts will add further negative pressure on the labour market.”
UUP MLA David McNarry said: “We need an Executive delivering corporate decisions and showing positive leadership on the economic front.
“What we don’t need are Oliver Twist representations asking for more to cover up the truth about how foolish the Executive’s approach to handling our money and economy has been.”