MINISTERS were faced with the prospect of angry emergency personnel taking industrial action as thousands turned out for a rally in Dublin against pay cuts.
The emotive gathering last night saw hundreds of nurses wearing T-shirts saying they would rather emigrate than take further wage cuts.
The protest also saw gardai ratchet up pressure on Justice Minister Alan Shatter as the force's supervisory ranks said they would support the rank-and-file's rolling campaign of action.
The move by the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors will give a significant boost to the looming protests.
However, Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan warned his officers they could face disciplinary action if they went ahead with threatened pickets at Government Buildings.
Anger among the Frontline Alliance mounted as an estimated 4,000 of its members voiced their rejection of Government cuts at the meeting at the National Basketball Arena in Tallaght, Dublin.
Nurses, gardai, prison officers and firefighters said they were seen as easy targets, but had nothing else to give.
They heard rallying calls for those unions that are still engaged in talks to renegotiate the Croke Park Agreement to walk away and join in the protests.
The mid-ranking Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors was the first group to pull out of talks on cutting pay, but until now it has stayed silent on its plans.
However, general secretary John Redmond said the central executive would soon give the go-ahead for a campaign of action.
He told the Irish Independent that his members would not shy away from taking a stand.
It means garda supervisors will join rank-and-file members of the Garda Representative Association, who begin their own campaign this Friday.
Both associations had hundreds of members at last night's major rally of the 24/7 Frontline Alliance, which represents some 70,000 public sector workers.
PJ Stone, general secretary of the GRA, accused Taoiseach Enda Kenny of "threatening" frontline workers into accepting cuts to their allowances.
"We are threatened every day in the jobs that we do and we have never flinched," he said.
Seamus Murphy, deputy general secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association (PNA), said it was "incomprehensible" that other trade unions were "in cahoots" with the Government to break the original Croke Park deal, which secured public sector workers' pay and allow-ances.
He accused the Government of reneging on the original pay deal "with the complicity of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions".
Talks are continuing between management and unions on a new Croke Park deal, though the garda associations have pulled out.
It emerged last night that the Government wants to save €350m by striking an agreement on additional working hours.
Getting staff to work extra hours would enable the Government to speed up a planned reduction in staff numbers, according to IMPACT.
"As well as having the potential to accelerate the planned reduction in staffing, additional hours would lead to significant additional savings by reducing dependence on overtime, agency work and, possibly, contractors," said the statement.
Management is seeking the equivalent of an extra hour a day for all staff, but IMPACT has said it would not recommend a deal on this basis.
IMPACT believes the gap between unions and management on working hours will narrow. The issue is complex because of the wide variety of hours worked across the public service.
With the GRA and AGSI not engaged in the talks, the Garda Commissioner will tomorrow make a bid to convince them to stay within the rules before they embark on rolling action.
The AGSI is due to meet Mr Callinan at a special meeting at Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park tomorrow.
After those talks, the executive is due to meet to determine a campaign, which is expected to be launched next week.
Mr Callinan is also due to meet the leadership of the GRA separately tomorrow and is expected to tell them that picketing outside Government Buildings is a breach of disciplinary regulations.
Senior officers said the meeting was not intended to be a showdown between management and staff, and the commissioner will focus on his understanding of the financial difficulties they face as a result of the cutbacks.
GRA president John Parker said proposals to place pickets on buildings such as Leinster House would not constitute industrial action and would remain within the disciplinary code.
He said his members would act like "sandwich board men" while parading up and down and the protest would represent "mobile advertising" but it would not be used to prevent people coming and going from the buildings.
He said it could not be described as industrial action.