Public service unions have given the Government two weeks to consider whether it will enter into pay talks early in 2017.

Following a meeting in Belfast today, the Public Services Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions said they had decided unanimously that it would be best to handle pay issues on a collective basis.

However, they warned that if unions handled their concerns on an individual basis, there would almost certainly be industrial action.

Earlier, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe said a collective approach is the only way to deal with pay claims.

He also said the best way to deal with public sector pay is through engagement within the Lansdowne Road Agreement.

Speaking on RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke, the minister said the LRA "is intact" and "must remain intact".

The Government has insisted it will not alter the timetable for pay restoration as set out in the LRA.

A number of union leaders have spoken publicly about the need for faster pay restoration though no formal pay claim has been lodged.

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The ICTU Public Service Committee decided unanimously to stick with a collective approach to negotiating with the Government on pay.

However, Committee Secretary Tom Geraghty warned that if public sector pay increases are not addressed through collective discussions soon, individual unions will deal with the issue in their own way - almost certainly involving industrial action.

The unions voted to adjourn their deliberations for two weeks to permit further exploratory talks with the Government side.

This will give the Government some breathing space to decide whether to enter pay negotiations ahead of schedule early in the new year.

Meanwhile, Patricia Callan of the Small Firms' Association and part of the employers' body, IBEC said while it is it important to have a collective pay agreement, it should not be at any cost.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One, Ms Callan said public sector workers are already due to receive a 2.5% increase next year and questioned where extra money would come from.

"The union movement together is trying to reinforce each others’ disputes by upping the ante and I think this is foolhardy,” said Ms Callan.

"I think we need to be very conscious of our cost competitiveness as a country and a blanket approach and unreasonable pay expectations is not the way to go.

"What we need is for the Government to go back to the old model of looking at moderate pay increases, tax decreases and then investment in services."

Any additional pay increases would have significant implications for the Government's budgetary allocations and some have warned they could lead to cuts in services or increased taxes.

Under the Lansdowne Road Agreement, which was negotiated to reverse pay and pension cuts for public service workers imposed since 2008, around 300,000 State employees are due to receive pay restoration of €1,000 next September with a further €1,000 in 2018 when the deal will expire.

However, the recent Labour Court recommendation that awarded gardaí three times that amount after rejecting the LRA, has ignited fury over pay.

Public service unions signed up to the LRA and say they will not tolerate groups that remained outside the agreement being rewarded to a greater degree.

The Government insists it will not deviate from its planned LRA timetable for pay restoration.

However, observers wonder if it can withstand mounting pressure from its 300,000-strong workforce, and if not, how it will fund next year's payroll.

The General Secretary of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation has said that the Government needs to "stop being coy" and come back to the table to discuss faster pay restoration.

Liam Doran said he would like to see talks begin early next year and added that all public service unions had been calling for accelerated pay restoration, before a deal was done with gardaí.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, he said the situation was unacceptable and it was not tenable that groups outside of the LRA were to receive significant pay increases in January while those inside the deal would have to wait to get a lesser increase next September.

He warned that if the Government did not come to the table in January, then public service unions would have to make a collective decision on what can be done to seek a change in the Government's standpoint.

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Costs of garda deal may exceed €50m

The gross cost of implementing the Labour Court recommendation for garda pay increases could exceed €50m, according to the Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald.

Responding to a parliamentary question by Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson Michael McGrath, Ms Fitzgerald noted that the gross cost of €50m would be offset by statutory deductions for items like tax and PRSI which would reduce the net Exchequer cost.

It could also vary depending on factors such as how much overtime was worked.

Mr McGrath had asked for the cost in a full year of implementing the recommendation.

The minister said that in the case of individual members, the recommendation would provide extra remuneration of around €4,000 on average to a member of An Garda Síochána over the next 12 months.