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Talks progress as union leaders meet with Cowen

UNIONS accepted the olive branch offered by Taoiseach Brian Cowen today and turned up for talks aimed at tackling the public sector disputes.

The talks are the first formal meeting between Government representatives and public sector unions since the collapse of negotiations before Christmas.

The breakthrough came after a meeting last night organised by Mr Cowen, who invited Irish Congress of Trade Union leaders to talk to him. The Taoiseach, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan and Environment Minister John Gormley met senior union officials, and agreed a general structure for the talks starting today.

No one has said how long the preliminary talks are likely to last. Optimists believe that substantive matters might be resolved before Easter.

Low-key industrial action, including work-to-rule phone bans and office closures, by up to 300,000 public servants will continue during the talks. But today the unions will be asked to lift a threat of escalation in their actions during the talks process.

Kieran Mulvey and Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission are the agreed facilitators for the new talks to tackle the controversial issues on public service pay and reform. The unions are expected to adopt a 'pay for change' approach.

Peter McLoone, chairman of the public servants' committee of Irish Congress of Trade Unions welcomed the initiative.

The basis for the talks is believed to be a union proposal that workers swap major reforms, such as a longer working day, in return for a reversal of the pay-cut over a period of time.

Earlier negotiations collapsed on the issue of public sector workers taking two weeks' compulsory unpaid leave.

The Civil, Public and Services Union (CPSU) has agreed to hold off on work stoppages from Monday to agree a joint strategy with the two other major civil service unions.

Public servants raised tensions in Leinster House yesterday when they intensified actions aimed directly against elected representatives.

Civil servants disrupted communications during a Dail sitting for the first time by refusing to deal with emails.