EIGHT hundred new jobs in the beef and sheep industry are to be announced by the government in the coming days, the Sunday Tribune has learned.

The job announcement will be a significant coup for the government ahead of Friday week's local, European and by-elections.

It is understood the jobs will be created as part of a €170m investment in the meat industry involving both the government and the private sector. The government is contributing €65m of this amount, with the rest coming from the agri-business sector.

Sources said the jobs, the majority of which will come from processing, will all come on stream within the next 18 months. Indigenous processing firms are said to have worked closely with the government on the investment package and the announcement will happen this week.

The government's record on unemployment has come under sustained attack from the opposition, with jobless figures set to reach 500,000 before the end of the year. The ESRI has forecast the loss of 300,000 jobs by the end of 2010. The opposition has accused the government of not prioritising job protection, however this has been rejected by Taoiseach Brian Cowen who has also stressed the importance of restoring order to the public finances as a prerequisite for getting the economy moving again.

With a new set of monthly jobless figures due out shortly, news of the 800 jobs will be a welcome relief for under pressure government deputies and candidates in the upcoming elections.

There is also cautious optimism within government circles that agreement can be reached with the unions and employers on a programme for national recovery that will include a job protection package.

Talks are due to resume this week between the sides. Sources played down suggestions that there might be serious developments prior to polling day, but it is understood that hopes are considerably higher that a deal can be agreed.

The developments come against a backdrop of slightly improved economic conditions internationally. The OECD said on Friday that contraction in world economic output appears to be slowing and a recovery could begin at the end of this year.

In a speech on Thursday last Cowen said that the Irish economy could return to rapid growth by as early as next year if there was a pick up in the global economy. Cowen said the country was "making real progress" because of the "tough decisions" taken by the government, adding "we have a way out that is working".