THE Taoiseach has warned that public servants' pay may be slashed again if they do not back a new Croke Park deal.
In his first strong message since talks on €1bn cuts began, Enda Kenny said the Government was prepared to impose wage reductions through legislation like the Fianna Fail/Green coalition did three years ago.
However, he said the Government's aim was to strike a deal on the payroll cuts that were needed over the next three years.
It came as Health Minister James Reilly said that a cut-price graduate programme for nurses may be extended to other workers.
In a televised interview, the Taoiseach twice referred to the possibility of new pay cuts, just days after it emerged that compulsory redundancies may also be tabled at the talks.
He issued the stark warning as talks between the Government and the unions' chief negotiators to find a successor to the Croke Park deal resume today.
The Government wants €300m of the €1bn savings this year, which is roughly a €1,000 cut per public servant.
"What we've said is that the Government of course reserves the right to legislate for reductions in pay if agreement can't be reached," said Mr Kenny.
He said the fact that the Government had the right to bring in legislation to make changes to achieve the required savings had been made "perfectly clear".
The Taoiseach said the Government wanted to achieve the savings by agreement and consent "where that's possible", and the goal was to protect frontline services.
"We hope that following the negotiations, which are of a relatively short timescale, that consent and agreement can be reached in everybody's interest," he added.
Any move to cut pay or axe staff is likely to lead to the collapse of the Croke Park deal, which guarantees that existing staff wages and jobs are safe.
The Taoiseach said pay increments, which cost €170m annually and are worth between €2,000 and €3,000 a year to each worker, would also be discussed at the talks.
Mr Kenny's comments are likely to appeal to party colleagues who have been highly critical of the Croke Park deal, while appeasing Labour by insisting he aims for agreement.
The Government has tabled plans to cut premium pay and allowances, increase working hours and redeploy staff more quickly.
Meanwhile, Dr Reilly said staff including physiotherapists and occupational therapists may be offered contracts on pay up to 20pc less than starting salaries for new recruits.
The Health Service Executive is already planning to hire 1,000 graduate nurses on basic pay of €21,769 a year, which is 80pc of the rate offered to new recruits.
The Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has boycotted the scheme, and the uptake has been so low that the deadline for applications was extended by two weeks.
The HSE will not say how many have applied – but union sources claim the number may be as low as 30.
SIPTU, which represents 9,000 healthcare staff, including nurses, described the new plan to extend the scheme to other staff as a "race to the bottom".
"No thank you, minister," said SIPTU divisional organiser Paul Bell. "The plan to extend this approach to other medical professionals will meet with the same level of success, bewilderment and hostility from the workers concerned.
"Irish nurses, who are probably the best educated and most sought-after throughout the developed world, are being told by the minister for health they are lucky to be offered €22,000 to work for the health service," he said.
"You have a choice, work for a fast-food organisation or emigrate."