Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has warned that expectations for the pay talks will have to be realistic.

Arriving at Dublin Castle for a meeting of the Social Partners, Mr Ahern said Ireland would have to maintain and improve competitiveness or the economy would be in trouble.

SIPTU General President Jack O'Connor warned that his union would not even enter the new round of talks unless issues of worker protection and agency workers were addressed.

The Taoiseach said two new pieces of legislation in this area would be published in the coming month, and he hoped this would reassure people.

IBEC Director General Turlough O'Sullivan insisted a new pay deal would have to take account of the difficult economic situation facing many companies.

This morning's meeting is concerned with launching a mid-term review of the current national agreement, Towards 2016.

But with the existing agreement on private sector pay due to expire next month, and the public sector in September, pay is a major part of that review.

There are other issues too. Many unions have expressed serious concerns about worker protection, and in particular the enforcement of the minimum wage.

Meanwhile, the Conference of Religious in Ireland has criticised the Government for not giving enough attention to social policy, particularly in primary healthcare, adult literacy and supporting carers.