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DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's services sector grew for the fifth successive month in December on the back of the strongest new export orders in over six years, a survey showed on Friday.
Bailed-out Ireland has avoided joining much of the euro zone in recession thanks to its robust export sector, but slowing demand from abroad may see economic growth in 2012 nearly halve from the 1.4 percent posted the previous year.
The NCB Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) of activity in the services sector eased back to 55.8 from 56.1 the previous month. But it stayed well above the 50 line that separates contraction from growth, indicating that the government's target of 0.9 percent economic growth for 2012 remains achievable.
December's reading, the third-highest in five years, was also far stronger than the euro zone average of 47.8 seen in flash figures last month.
"With respondents across all four components indicating that they are upbeat about the outlook, as has been the case for seven months running, we would expect to see the positive trends observed in the second half of 2012 continue into this year," said Philip O'Sullivan, chief economist at NCB Stockbrokers.
The continued momentum was driven by new export business, the index for which rose for the 17th month in a row to 61.3 from 56.2 in November. It was the highest level reached since September 2006 and the third-fastest since its inclusion in the index a decade ago.
The rate of job creation in the sector grew for the fourth successive month to remain at a five-year high, having contracted in each month bar two from March 2008 to August 2012.
A separate survey earlier this week showed that manufacturing sector activity expanded for the 10th month running in December, but did so at its slowest pace in four months as growth in new orders weakened.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin and Stephen Mangan; Editing by Hugh Lawson