BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland's unemployment rate hit its highest level since the peace process sparked an economic boom a decade ago, figures showed on Wednesday, amid falling state spending and a recession in the Irish republic.
Jobless levels leapfrogged the UK average for the first time in five years to hit 8.0 percent, according to figures released by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Belfast.
The rate has increased by 6.5 percent in the past year as the province fell behind the rest of the United Kingdom, whose unemployment rate fell by almost 10 percent in the same period.
"It's soul destroying," said Siobhan Murphy, 24, looking for work at an employment office in central Belfast after losing her sales job in London's West End last spring.
"You look and you look, you might get an interview but there are so many after the same job it's almost impossible," she said.
Almost half of all those out of work have been unemployed for one year or more. Among the 18-24 age group, 22.5 percent have not worked for at least a year, the figures showed.
The last time unemployment was at such a high level was in 1998 as Northern Ireland emerged from decades of violence and the Good Friday Agreement led to the return of a local power-sharing government and boosted confidence in the economy.
With the province more reliant on public sector employment than any other region of Britain and the local administration tightening its purse strings to balance the books, local economists have predicted that 10,000 or more will join the dole queues.
A recent report from Ernst & Young predicted that even when the good times do return an unemployment rate of at least 6 percent can be expected indefinitely.
"I don't see it getting better in my time," said Jack Steward, a 59-year-old former construction worker nursing a pint in a pub around the corner from the employment office.
"I haven't worked for two years and I worry I may not work again," he said.
(Editing by Michael Holden)