Minister for Health Simon Harris has said he hopes talks with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation at the Workplace Relations Commission are fruitful and constructive.

The INMO is in dispute with the Health Service Executive over the recruitment and retention of nurses, and its Executive Council agreed to enter discussions ahead of a planned work-to-rule by nurses next Tuesday.

Talks between the HSE and the INMO have commenced at the WRC in a bid to avert the industrial action by 35,000 nurses.

The HSE has calculated that granting the nurses' demands would cost €180 million per year, which it says it cannot afford.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Health Committee, Mr Harris said there was progress made during the previous talks with the INMO on recruitment and retention.

Although he said there were areas where they did not make progress, particularly on how the retention measures interact with the public sector pay commission.

He said he hoped there was progress on that issue as industrial unrest was not in "anyone's interests".

Accepting the INMO's point that a lot of nurses had left the health service, he said numbers have grown recently but had to grow further to reach the levels before the crash.

"If we have to find additional resources for pay measures above and beyond the Lansdowne Road Agreement measures agreed by government, there is no new pot of money," he said.

HSE 'committed' to working with INMO

Arriving for talks at the WRC, the HSE's National HR Director Rosarii Mannion said they were committed to working with the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation to address the recruitment and retention issues.

However, she noted that the HSE has to honour the Lansdowne Road public service pay agreement, which restricts what it can do in terms of pay.

Ms Mannion said that notwithstanding that, the HSE was committed to working as proactively as possible to fill vacancies that emerge in the system.

She said it was crucial that the action be averted to avoid negative impact on patients and the public.

Asked about the prospect of cancellations of patient procedures, Ms Mannion said the HSE was working through its contingency plan on a site by site basis.

She said it was not possible at this point to set out exactly what that will mean, but reiterated that she hoped that they would be able to avert the planned industrial action.

Liam Doran, General Secretary of the INMO said that no one wanted a dispute in the health service, but there was a difficult challenge ahead.

He described the recruitment and retention of nurses as a "critical situation".

He said he did not accept the HSE's calculation that the nurses' demands would cost €180 million a year.

Mr Doran said the time for posturing and megaphones was over, and it was time for hard negotiations to arrive at a set of proposals capable of addressing the recruitment crisis.

The body that oversees the Lansdowne Road Agreement has warned the INMO that if it proceeds with the work-to-rule, it will be in breach of the agreement and could face penalties including a pay freeze.

Asked whether that was a matter of concern, Mr Doran said the INMO was focused on trying to resolve the dispute, and they would cross bridges down he road when they had to cross them.

The oversight body also recommended that the proposed industrial action should be deferred to allow engagement to take place. 

The INMO's executive council will meet again on Saturday to review the progress of the discussions and decide whether or not the basis exists to defer next week's action.

The Lansdowne Road Agreement was negotiated to reverse pay and pension cuts for public service workers imposed since 2008. It extends the Haddington Road Agreement until 2018.