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Strike fear eases as Taoiseach proposes union talks

The threat of an escalation of the public sector disputes will be lifted today after Taoiseach Brian Cowen last night invited unions back to talks.

However, low-key industrial action including work-to-rule phone bans and office closures by up to 300,000 public servants will continue.

In a major breakthrough, Mr Cowen invited the unions to preliminary talks. Both sides agreed to ask Kieran Mulvey and Kevin Foley of the Labour Relations Commission to act as facilitators for new talks on pay and public service reform.

Those talks are due to begin today. Mr Mulvey and Mr Foley are expected to ask unions to lift the threat of further action.

Peter McLoone, chairman of the public servants' committee of Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), said: "I welcome the initiative and the union side will be approaching this to achieve a just settlement to this dispute."

Senior union leaders said they hoped to have an agreement on the basis of 'pay for change' before Easter.

The basis for discussions is believed to centre on 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.

The last set of talks collapsed before Christmas on the issue of public sector workers taking two weeks' compulsory unpaid leave. Mr Cowen invited ICTU officers to a meeting last night

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