ECONOMISTS predict that unemployment may hit "catastrophic" levels over 12pc this year after the Live Register recorded its worst year in history.
An unprecedented 71pc hike in numbers signing on over the last 12 months has put an extra €1.3bn strain on the already overburdened Exchequer.
Experts have dramatically revised their predictions for 2009 and now estimate that 400,000 people may join the dole queues before the end of the year.
The number now signing on is edging close to 300,000 -- a figure that has only ever been exceeded once.
Some economists secretly admitted that their official estimates could be conservative and jobless queues may reach levels not seen since the 1980s, when unemployment was extremely high.
Fine Gael accused the "inept triumvirate" of Brian Cowen, Mary Coughlan and Brian Lenihan of spending last year "sitting on their hands" as the Live Register surged.
A total of 121,100 more people signed on during the year as the deterioration in the workforce gathered speed, bringing the total seasonally adjusted figure to 293,500, the highest number of claimants since 1993.
There was an unadjusted increase of 22,777 people claiming assistance last month, made up of 16,142 men and 6,635 women.
The record rise in unemployment last year meant an average 10,000 people lost their jobs every month -- and the rate more than doubled in December.
Unemployment now stands at a 10-year high of 8.3pc of the workforce, almost double the 4.7pc rate just over a year ago.
The new statistics for December do not even take account of an expected hike in claims following the most recent mass job losses at Dell.
The Government came in for a second day of sustained fire from opposition parties and business groups following the release of the Central Statistics Office figures.
Economists predicting more modest increases in the unemployment rate to around 9pc this year reviewed their expectations by upwards of 3pc.
FAS economist Brian McCormick said it was "inevitable" that the unemployment rate would rise above 12pc this year "should the current rate of acceleration persist".
He said the rate was being driven by the slowdown in construction activity as layoffs in the sector rose by almost 250pc last year compared to 2007.
Foreign nationals have been disproportionately affected by job losses and make up 19pc of claimants, compared with just 2pc in 2006. And he said the future unemployment rate would depend on several factors, including the impact of a weak sterling and the credit crunch on retailers.
IBEC senior economist Fergal O'Brien and Bloxham stockbrokers also warned that the jobless rate could reach over 12pc this year.
Ulster Bank Economist Lynsey Clemenger predicted a more modest increase, above 10pc.
"This will represent the highest rate since 1997, however, is still below the high double-digit rate of unemployment in the mid-eighties, when the labour force was half the size," she said.
She said the fact that men continue to make up the majority of the monthly rise in claimants was a clear indication that layoffs in construction and related sectors are continuing at a fast pace.
Fine Gael deputy leader and finance spokesman Richard Bruton pointed out that 510 jobs were lost every day during the last three months of 2008.
Labour Party spokesperson on Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Willie Penrose, said it seemed inevitable that the 300,000 figure would be breached next month.
The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association said the situation was catastrophic and the figures confirmed Government inaction on job losses.
Chief Executive Mark Fielding labelled 2008 the "annus horribilis" of the labour market.
Detailed charts that accompany the CSO figures reveal the number of men on the dole rose by 83pc while the number of women is up by 50pc, compared with December 2007.
Youth Work Ireland said concerted action was needed as the figures showed a near doubling in youth unemployment.