Talks between the four Nurses’ unions and management broke down last night a month before the May deadline. The issue has now been referred back to the Labour Court. The pay differential issue is the main problem. The talks in the long-running nurses' pay dispute have ended in deadlock tonight, a full month before the deadline of May 1 set by the Labour Court. The outstanding pay issues have been referred back to the Court, whose next recommendation is expected to be the final one.

The decision to return to the Court was taken after a joint review of the talks involving the four unions and health service management, which ended a few minutes ago. Both sides concede that progress of the central issue of pay has been minimal over the past month.

There have also been problems over ward structures, long service increments for staff nurses and changes proposed in psychiatric nursing.

Irish Nurses' Organisation leader, Liam Doran, tonight blamed the Government, and the Department of Finance in particular, for failing to make cash available.

However, the Chief Executive of the Health Service Employers' Agency, Gerard Barry, rejected that claim. He said that offers totalling £33 million had been made, on top of the £85million deal back in 1997. He said that meant the nurses' pay bill would be at least £120million higher in 1999 than in 997.