GARDA numbers will be slashed by 1,000 this year because of a serious shortfall in their wages budget.
Plans to cut numbers include offering gardai the option of a three- year career break, as senior officials do not believe they can achieve enough retirements during 2013.
The unilateral decision to slash the payroll without any consultation has sent shockwaves through the senior ranks.
The Government has cut the garda payroll by more than €25m, meaning there is only enough money in the Department of Justice coffers to pay about 12,500 personnel, although the current garda strength is 13,417.
It is expected that fewer than 500 gardai will leave the force this year through natural wastage – meaning approximately another 500 need to be cut from the payroll.
Urgent talks are now being held between the garda authorities and top-ranking officials from three gov- ernment departments.
A carrot for taking a career break will be a lump-sum offer of €30,000, which is taxable, with a guarantee that the job will be available again after three years.
The break will allow gardai to take up other employment here or seek job opportunities in overseas markets such as Australia and Canada.
They will also have the option of returning to education or concen- trating on child-minding.But they will remain subject to garda disciplinary regulations, which rule out work as bouncers or in security firms.
Today's disclosure of the bizarre move is certain to raise tensions among the public service unions as they prepare for the second phase of the Croke Park talks.
The talks with the Department of Public Expenditure are due to get under way on Monday week.
Last year, a total of 460 personnel left the force, compared with 480 in 2011, 400 in 2010 and 776 in 2009.
Latest official figures show that crime has again fallen in 12 out of 14 categories.
But violent crime, including gangland murders, remains at a disturbing level and the threat from dissident terror groups is now at a higher level than it has been in much of the past decade.
Meanwhile, talks are ongoing between gardai and the departments of Public Expenditure, Justice and Social Protection.
A second proposal understood to be under discussion at the private talks is deploying more gardai on secondment to other state agencies.
At the moment, gardai are seconded on a temporary basis to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement and the Competition Authority.
But the alternatives could be extended to include the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Protection – where garda expertise can be used to help fight fraud.
Supporters of the secondment measure believe it would still exploit the intelligence available to members of the force from their computerised records and put it to use in a more concerted crackdown on crime.
They also argue that forging closer links between the agencies will be hugely beneficial in the future.
It is universally accepted that the downsizing of the force cannot take place at such a rapid rate without radical alternatives to retirement being put forward – and redundancy is not an option.
Gardai can retire on full pension if they reach their 50th birthday and have completed 30 years' service.
Around 1,000 gardai are eligible to leave this year from that category.
But it is highly likely that fewer than half of them will retire early, with a total of 20 personnel indicating that they will leave this month, including a deputy and an assistant commissioner.
At the moment, some 41 gardai are on career breaks and another 100 are involved in job-sharing schemes, under the force's family-friendly policy.
The Department of Justice told the Irish Independent last night that "as the moratorium on recruitment continues for the time being", allowance was made in the garda payroll provision for "reduced headcount" through retirements.
Under the national recovery plan, the size of the force is to be cut to 13,000 – down from its 14,500 headcount at the start of 2011.
But the huge shortfall in this year's budget indicates that Justice Minister Alan Shatter is intent on further reductions, at least on a short-term basis.
Mr Shatter has so far resisted calls by the opposition to launch a new garda recruitment campaign, on the grounds that it takes a fully fledged garda two years to complete training at the Garda College in Templemore.
Fianna Fail's justice spokesman Niall Collins reckoned that even if the campaign started now, the overall garda strength would have fallen to a "dangerously low level" of less than 12,300 by the time the new recruits were fully qualified.