Kenny denies 'forced labour' claims
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has denied "forced labour" schemes for the long-term unemployed are behind a drop in joblessness.
Latest official figures show the number of people signing on the dole has fallen to 11.9% of the overall workforce - down from a peak of just over 15% several years ago.
Some 398,069 people are now claiming unemployment benefits, the first time in five years the figure has dipped under the 400,000 barrier, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO) report.
This also means the numbers signing on have been falling for 20 months in a row.
But Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams accused the government of massaging unemployment figures through "forced labour" schemes like JobBridge and Gateways.
"[The Gateways] scheme forces unemployed people to carry out work for local authorities with threats of cuts or suspension of welfare payments, even though it pays only a fraction of the minimum wage," he said.
"It involves no training or education, has no prospect of long-term employment for those forced to take part and local authorities have been given an allocation of 3,000 places to fill.
"But surely if there are 3,000 positions to be filled, those citizens working in these positions deserve to have proper terms and conditions."
Mr Adams called for the scheme to be scrapped. "I do you think you have to acknowledge this is a scam, it is there to massage unemployment figures, it's a race to the bottom," he said.
Mr Kenny rejected the claims and insisted people need experience to get a job.
"The Gateways scheme does not force people into employment... many of these people want to make a contribution," he said.
"People do like to make a contribution, people do like to get out of the rut of long-term unemployment. "
Mr Kenny said the back-to-work programmes were making visible changes at community level.
The latest indication of a significant improvement in employment figures follows a report last week which showed 61,000 more people in jobs last year.
However, the CSO report also reveals a continuing crisis in long-term joblessness with more than 180,000 people on the live register signing on for more than a year.
In the year to February, the number of long-term unemployed fell by just 8,971.
Social Protection Minister Joan Burton said the figures were encouraging and signalled Ireland's return to being a "normal Eurozone country".
But she urged employers to keep taking on apprentices.
"A 12% unemployment rate is still far too high and that is why, this year and beyond, my absolute priority will be to ensure that the live register falls substantially further, with full employment the central target," she said.
"Employers will be key to this. We want employers in Ireland to follow the example of their counterparts in countries like Germany and Austria and be willing to give not only young jobseekers but also long-term unemployed people the necessary work, training and apprenticeship opportunities."
The CSO report showed a 30,807 drop in the number of people on the register over the 12 months to February.
The total is now back down to levels last experienced in November last year - before that the live register had not been below the 400,000 mark since May 2009.
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said the latest fall in unemployment was reflected in all parts of the country and in most sectors of the economy.
"I do not underestimate for one moment the difficulties which many of our people are continuing to experience," he said.
"But equally it is clear that there are real grounds for confidence that the recovery is under way and will make itself felt in the prospects and the pockets of our people.
"We will continue to play our role in bedding down the recovery and in ensuring that its benefits are felt where they are needed most - in the pockets and the lives of hard-pressed families."