The plan is part of a wider executive programme to ensure all of its departments make ‘efficiency savings’ of 3% over three years.
It means the Department for Health Social Services and Public Safety will have to save £344m by 2012.
All trusts will be consulted about the proposals over the next five months, according to ministers.
Health minister for Northern Ireland Michael McGimpsey claimed the savings did not represent a cut and that it was about making more effective use of staff and their skills.
If the number of posts had to be reduced, this would be achieved without compulsory redundancies, he said.
But he warned: ‘There is no doubt delivering the efficiency savings for health and social care will be difficult to achieve. It’s a monumental amount of money to squeeze from a system already operating within limited resources. Difficult decisions will have to be made.’
Mary Hinds, RCN Northern Ireland director, said: ‘We are deeply concerned that patient care will suffer as a result of these substantial cuts to nursing posts, and are extremely disappointed that nurses are being targeted in this way.
‘Nurses are the backbone of the health service and any cut in the number of nurses will affect everyone,’ she added.
‘Should this plan be implemented, we are very worried – not only about the nurses who may lose their jobs but also for those left behind who will inevitably be under even greater pressure.’
Ms Hinds urged nurses across Northern Ireland to make their voices heard in the workplace, the local community and to local union representatives, to show they believed the cuts were unacceptable.
‘We appreciate that the minister has difficult decisions to make but drastically cutting the numbers of nurses in the health service is quite simply not the answer,’ said Ms Hinds.