Official figures show that the number of people on the Live Register fell by 3,300 to 443,200 in December.

The Central Statistics Office also said that the unemployment rate fell slightly to 14.3% from 14.4% in November.

Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton said the fall was encouraging but he stressed there was still a very challenging unemployment problem.

The CSO said the average rate for all of 2011 was 14.2%, up from 13.7% in 2010.

The number of people on the dole in December was the lowest figure since April, but the CSO has described the overall trend as relatively flat over the past 12 months.

A fall in the number of men signing on accounted for all of the 3,300 fall last month, as the number of women on the Live Register rose marginally.

The number of women on the Live Register has increased by 4.6% over the past 12 months, in contrast to a 3.1% fall in the number of men claiming.

The headline Live Register figure, which does not take seasonal factors into account, rose by 5,217 to 434,784.

The Live Register includes some part-time and seasonal workers and does not measure unemployment.

The CSO also said the number of long-term claimants rose by 908 in December to 180,798. Almost 42% of claimants on the Live Register have been there for a year or more.

However, it says that the annual rate of increase in long-term claimants has been slowing.

It also notes a downward trend in the number of people under 25 signing on. This figure has fallen by 8.5% in the past 12 months.

There were 37,931 new claims in December, little changed from November.

This figure is not the same as the monthly change in the Live Register, which is affected by people closing claims and moving between different schemes.