TALKS on salvaging a public-sector pay deal are entering an "intensive" period as unions and management mount a final push to avoid government-imposed pay cuts.
Health unions, including the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO), were locked in talks at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) last night, and teaching unions will attend at the LRC today.
It comes as the Government admitted it may not get its original target of €300m savings for this year, but is adamant it will still reach its goal of €1bn by 2015.
"We are in a very intensive period now," Junior Finance Minister Brian Hayes said. "The key issue has always been can we extract €1bn of savings by 2015."
But Mr Hayes conceded the €300m may not be achieved this year as some concessions are granted to unions.
He said €300m was "still the target, it's still the ambition".
"But alternative solutions have been put forward and some of those alternative solutions may not deliver the savings this year but could produce the full savings in 2014, 2015," he told RTE Radio.
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin will give an update to Cabinet on the talks tomorrow, even if LRC chief executive Kieran Mulvey is given more time to see if an agreement is possible.
The INMO rejected the initial Croke Park II proposals, as did the teaching unions. An INMO spokeswoman would not elaborate on the talks last night.
The talks with the health and education unions are seen as key, and Mr Howlin has said he will extend the talks by a day or two if it appears agreement can be reached.
The Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO), the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) have all agreed to meet with the LRC.
A meeting of the executive of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) this morning is expected to give the go-ahead for the university lecturers' union to enter the talks later today.
Teachers are returning to the table armed with a mandate for industrial action in the event that the Government imposes cuts unilaterally.
INTO members have voted 91pc in favour of action and ballots by the TUI and ASTI, which close today, are expected also to show support for action.
The TUI and IFUT had to consider the LRC invitation against the background of decisions at their recent annual conferences not to renegotiate Croke Park II. However, leadership of both unions have said, as far as they are concerned, Croke Park II is dead and they want to use talks to discuss issues of concern to their members.
TUI president Gerard Craughwell said the decision was taken following detailed discussion and careful consideration in order to best represent the interests of members and to negotiate on their behalf.
The TUI would make it clear that the education sector had been pushed to the limit in terms of cuts, he said
Meanwhile, IFUT general secretary Mike Jennings said any decision by his union to return to talks could not be read as a signal that it was okay for the Government to break the first Croke Park agreement, which still had time to run before unions were called in to discuss Croke Park II.