Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny infuriated trade union chiefs with a call at his party's annual conference for suspension of the national pay agreement next year to protect jobs.

But he pleased many followers who believe a tough, no-nonsense approach to Ireland's economic woes is the party's best chance of seizing power if the government chooses to call a snap general election.

While political analysts believe that is unlikely - polls continue to show Fianna Fail would suffer a humiliating defeat - Fine Gael believes it can lead the next government whenever a general election is held.

The party anticipates wide-ranging success in next June's local and European elections.

In his keynote address to a packed conference that was clearly on election alert, Kenny called on the government and the unions to suspend the pay deal.

He said, "The country cannot afford the national pay deal. It is as simple as that. This deal must be suspended for 12 months and reviewed after that. It was negotiated in a different context with different expectations."

He said that if the Irish people wanted to be masters of their own destiny, spending would have to be controlled to ensure that the country regained competitiveness.

Kenny told more than 1,200 delegates in Wexford, "Let's be clear on this - if we manage our finances prudently, there should be no need for damaging tax increases that undermine our future growth.

"The money saved by this initiative should be invested directly in key infrastructures like school buildings and public transport, and in retraining and up-skilling our workforce. The time to start fixing the economic mess created by Fianna Fail and Brian Cowen is now. We simply must get the country back on track."

He also said that Fine Gael would not be paralyzed by the current banking crisis and that it would immediately re-capitalize the banks since too many jobs in small businesses all over Ireland country are threatened by the lack of access to credit.

Trade unions reacted angrily to the call for a suspension of the pay agreement.

Jack O'Connor, president of the largest union, SIPTU, said a suspension "would be the worst possible approach imaginable at this point in time."

He said it would not only have implications for the living standards of ordinary people, but it could also worsen the recession and depress consumer confidence further at a time when demand needed to be stimulated.

The pay deal, which has been backed by unions and employers, will give workers increases of six percent over the next 21 months.

The FG conference coincided with a Red C poll in The Sunday Business Post showing continuing support for Kenny and his party. Support for Fine Gael rose to 35 percent, compared to 30 percent for Fianna Fail, the main government party