Confidence 'hit by winter weather'
Business confidence in Northern Ireland is in its steepest decline since April last year, with the freezing temperatures further chilling spirits, research has revealed.
Small companies are suffering from falling demand, fears of further cuts and the effects of the Irish Republic's economic woes, according to business consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Meanwhile, publicans and restaurateurs are complaining of cancelled pre-Christmas functions as people shelter from the sub-zero weather.
Chief Northern Ireland economist at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Esmond Birnie, said: "As we predicted almost a year ago, unemployment is heading towards 60,000, almost double the level of two years ago and the highest level since 1999.
"Unfortunately, there is no indication that unemployment has peaked. It may go higher still."
Mr Birnie revealed private sector confidence has been flat for 35 months. November business confidence showed the most significant fall since April 2009, while the rising number of long-term unemployed shows no sign of reversing soon.
He said: "Confidence continues to decline in the service and construction sectors, however manufacturing sector confidence has stabilised, possibly because exporters are more competitive as a result of the weakened pound. However, serious concerns remain about demand, raw material costs and ultimately, jobs."
Mr Birnie also indicated that difficulties in the Republic of Ireland, ranging from the collapse of the construction sector to plummeting disposable incomes, are directly affecting the economy of Northern Ireland.
He added: "And with 10% of local manufacturing output, worth £1.5 billion a year, historically destined for the south, exporters have to look elsewhere for opportunities and sales.
"Next year, while we expect a recovery in the Republic's manufacturing exports and positive economic growth, we do not see this having a significant impact on the fortunes of Northern Ireland."