Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned any extra cash the Government has is needed to save jobs in the case of a hard Brexit, not fund pay hikes being sought by nurses.
r Varadkar has poured cold water on the prospect of their pay demands being met ahead of an Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) announcement of when it will hold a planned 24-hour strike.
His remarks, effectively shooting down salary demands, are likely to ramp up tensions with the INMO ahead of tomorrow's planned announcement on when nurses will strike.
The Government has intensified planning for the possibility the UK will crash out of the EU without a deal at the end of March.
Estimates on the numbers of jobs that would be lost in the event of a hard Brexit range from 10,000 to 40,000, with agri-food and small and medium enterprises (SMEs) expected to be the worst hit.
Mr Varadkar said there was "real uncertainty" and "if Brexit goes wrong in 12 weeks' time, we may need to use any extra money that we have to save people's jobs".
He cited the agriculture and SME sectors as areas where workers were "very vulnerable". "So if we do find ourselves with a little bit of extra money during the year, I think we'd have to hold aside to make sure some people [keep] their jobs, not to fund additional pay increases for anyone over and above what's already been committed to," he said.
The Taoiseach insisted he understood "the depth of feeling in the nursing profession about their pay and conditions".
He suggested a strike could still be averted though the State's industrial relations mechanisms.
Nurses have voted overwhelmingly for strike action, with the INMO seeking salary increases it says would help with the recruitment and retention of staff.
INMO General Secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha said the organisation's executive would meet today and tomorrow to decide strike dates.
She said the INMO was still open to "meaningful proposals from Government that might avert industrial action".
"In the meantime, our members are once again facing a flu season in which they are desperately under-resourced and patient safety is at great risk," she added.
As well as citing the need to use cash reserves to protect jobs in a no-deal Brexit, Mr Varadkar said salary increases for nurses over and above what was agreed in the public sector pay deal would force the Government to borrow.
He said this would be a "mistake" and "unwise" at a time when the State's finances had only just been balanced after the economic crash.
"You could find yourself back where we started very soon if we get into that kind of economic policy," he warned.
He said the Government's pay deal with public servants - including nurses - involved several pay increases and included a modest across-the-board 1pc rise, and more for those earning less than €30,000.
Among other measures he listed were a special increase for people recruited after 2012, which he said would be worth about €3,000 a year to about 10,000 nurses.
He said there was around €20m on the table for specific measures on nursing recruitment and retention.
Mr Varadkar added: "That's what's in the deal and that's what we will honour."
He said he hoped there would be engagement with unions representing nurses using the State's industrial relations mechanisms.
"Perhaps we can avoid a strike in that way," he added.