NO one comes out of the long-running fire service pay dispute with much credit.

The local authority negotiators and Government ministers have been too prepared to alternate responsibility between each other. Instead of a united voice on the employers' side of the negotiating table, there have been mixed and often confusing signals.

Is it any wonder that on occasions talks descended into near farce?

And for its part, while the Fire Brigades Union entered the dispute with a perfectly legitimate grievance that pay settlements had lagged behind those in the police and health services, its credibility suffered with its refusal to budge from an unrealistic 40 per cent demand.

There was always scope for agreement. Within the employers there was an acceptance that firefighters warranted a pay rise over and above the current norm for the public sector.

And within the FBU there was an acceptance that some modernisation of the service had to take place.

Modernisation was the vital ingredient of an agreement. Not only to finance pay increases, but also to reflect the changing environment in which fire brigades need to operate in the modern world.

With so much common ground between both sides, it is a tragedy that the dispute culminated in industrial action, which not only put lives and property at risk, but also entailed financial hardship for firefighters.

But then at long last there appeared to be a breakthrough in the dispute.

In the current economic climate, the 16 per cent offer on the table yesterday seemed very reasonable. The local authority employers said they had gone to the "absolute limits" of what they could afford. This rang true.

So it is with much disappointment we learn that the FBU leadership has rejected the offer, bringing the threat of more strikes.

With not a great deal of hope admittedly, we urge general secretary Andy Gilchrist to think again, and the membership to acknowledge at its recalled national conference later this month that the agreement is fair and as good as can be achieved.