THE Fire Brigades Union general secretary Andy Gilchrist is adamant the 16 per cent pay offer he recommended for acceptance yesterday differs significantly from previous proposals.

Others would beg to differ with Mr Gilchrist's interpretation. The offer being put to FBU delegates next month is remarkably similar to one tabled last November, before the union staged 15 days of strikes.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this dispute could and should have been settled before it reached the depths of industrial action and acrimony.

The FBU shares some of the blame for the deadlock. Its original demand for a 40 per cent pay rise, 13 times the latest rate of inflation announced yesterday, was totally unrealistic and helped set the tone of bitterness.

But the bulk of the blame must be attached to the Government, which publicly left the matter to be resolved by the local authority employers, but in truth was the real negotiating body. Its ham-fisted handling of the dispute exaggerated divisions, encouraged tensions and ultimately prolonged the dispute.

Let us hope that lessons have been learned by all sides.

Let us hope, also, that the FBU members put their frustration with the Government to one side, and acknowledge that the offer on the table is fair.

It is widely acknowledged that the pay of firefighters, relative to other public service workers, has been depressed in recent years.

However, it is unrealistic for firefighters to expect a rise which is significantly above inflation, and above the current norm for both public and private sector workers.

It is only right for the public to expect efficiencies in return for above-inflation pay increases.

Under the proposed agreement, firefighters will be rewarded for their skills and expertise. And, crucially, both they and the public are being reassured that levels of service will not be compromised.

With so much common ground between the local authorities and the FBU, it is likely a satisfactory agreement would have been reached months ago had the Government not blundered into the negotiations.