THE Government and public sector unions have been warned to pull back from the brink as strikes could "tear the country apart".
It comes following reports the Cabinet will legislate within weeks for public sector pay cuts if agreement cannot be reached on Croke Park II to secure €1bn worth of savings.
Such a move could provoke widespread industrial action by nurses, teachers, civil servants and other workers.
In a stark warning, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) general secretary David Begg said: "Don't go into something that can tear the country apart.
"We could be an awful long time recovering from that. That applies to encouraging caution on our own affiliated membership, but urging caution on the Government as well.
"To explode a nuclear bomb at this stage ... it's just so painfully wrong it has to be avoided."
His remarks echo those of SIPTU president Jack O'Connor, who said: "As things stand, we are poised to beat each other to a pulp in what could become the biggest industrial dispute since the 1913 Lockout."
But Mr Begg said workers who are refusing to contemplate any cuts whatsoever "are not being realistic".
The Government and unions have been on a collision course since workers rejected proposals to reduce the public sector bill by €300m this year and €1bn by the end of 2015.
Senior Coalition sources were quoted as saying they will cut pay and freeze increments as early as three weeks' time.
But junior health minister Kathleen Lynch insisted there is no plan "at this stage" for what happens if there is no fresh deal.
She said Kieran Mulvey, chief executive of the Labour Relations Commission, is due to report tomorrow with a recommendation on whether a basis for further negotiation exists.
Mr Mulvey had more than 30 meetings last week with a wide range of unions.
"My information is that there are no plans to do that [legislate for pay cuts] in the immediate future, that Kieran Mulvey needs to come back and report to Minister Howlin and we'll see if there is a basis for renegotiation," Ms Lynch said.
Mr Begg said: "It's easy to get into something, it's not quite as easy to get out of it again."
He admitted a tweak around the edges of the Croke Park II plans is unlikely to secure acceptance because of the size of the No vote last month.
Mr Begg said unions have not yet agreed on any coordinated approach to industrial action.
Under the terms of Croke Park II, pay cuts only kick in for those on over €65,000 a year – 87pc of the 290,000 workforce are below that level.