THE government will suspend public sector workers who refuse to carry out their duties as part of the campaign of industrial action against the recent pay cuts, according to an agreed strategy drawn up for the cabinet.

The Sunday Tribune has learned that finance minister Brian Lenihan circulated a special memo to cabinet ministers last week on this issue. The memo outlined a "coordinated approach" for government departments to deal with the public sector union's campaign.

It stressed the need for departments to identify areas where any action would have a serious impact on the public and put contingency plans in place to deal with this. But the memo also said that, where appropriate, those workers who refused to carry out duties would face suspension.

While informed sources say the current levels of work-to-rule would not trigger suspensions, the memo clears the way for a tougher stand should the dispute be escalated.

When informed of the memo's contents yesterday, senior union leaders warned that they would engage in strike action "if any public servant is taken off the pay roll".

Siptu boss Jack O'Connor said that if any worker is suspended, there would be "a response". Blair Horan, head of the Civil and Public Service Union (CPSU), was even blunter stating that "there will be strike action, targeted in areas like social welfare, which the union has to date avoided, if any member is suspended".

He said that to date the unions had kept the action at "a relatively low level compared to previous disputes" in keeping with the unions' strategy of maximising inconvenience for management and politicians, rather than the general public. Despite the sabre-rattling on both sides, there are also tentative moves towards re-establishing contacts between the government and the unions.

It is understood that Lenihan's memo says that, if possible, the government should re-enter discussions with the unions. It says that contact should be made with the union leadership at the earliest opportunity to establish if and when those discussions could begin.

There were unconfirmed reports that some informal contacts between the two sides occurred last week. And union leaders accept that, ultimately, negotiations are the only way forward. Jack O'Connor yesterday welcomed the recent intervention of the Labour Relations Commission's Kieran Mulvey, who suggested that talks should take place to resolve the dispute. "This is unquestionably the only way to go," said O'Connor.

While he stressed that the unions want a negotiated settlement, O'Connor further claimed that "some elements of the government are eager for confrontation". He said that as part of any negotiated settlement, the unions wanted a reversal of the pay cuts, protection of employment and an assurance of no further financial pain.

The unions were prepared for their part to agree to the type of radical transformation of the public service agreed in the talks which broke down before Christmas, he said.

The government is also keen to get the reform package back on the table, but will not consider any reversal of the budget pay cuts. It is believed to be open, however, to making assurances on current pay and conditions in return for reforms.

The belief in government circles is that the union leadership's key objective is to head off any further cuts in pay and pension in next December's budget.