New report on social partnership

A report on social partnership in Ireland, published in December 1997, has posed some difficult questions for trade unions, employers and government. The report, while acknowledging the social partners' efforts in widening the concept of social partnership to include community and voluntary groups and their contribution towards informing public policy, points to a number of severe challenges and tests. It makes a number of important recommendations, which include a renewed vision and role for social partnership in Ireland.

Social partnership in Ireland

In the past decade, Ireland has developed a system of social participation which plays a major role in the conduct of economic and social policy. This approach began in 1987, with a three-year agreement between the Government, the trade union movement, employers and agricultural interests. This lifted the country from the deep economic and social crisis of the 1980s and facilitated a return to growth. That agreement was followed by three further social partnership programmes, the latest of which is Partnership 2000 (IE9702103F). These agreements determine the growth of pay in both the public and private sector, but also embody a negotiated approach to a wide range of economic and social policies. The consensus which underpinned these agreements was, to a large extent, developed in the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), a deliberative body in which the social partners and senior civil servants undertake analysis and discussion of strategic issues. Following agreement on the strategic priorities, negotiation of the programmes was undertaken in a separate body, the Central Review Committee, which also monitors the implementation of the programmes.

The period of social partnership has been one of unprecedented economic success. In the decade to 1996, Ireland had the highest rate of growth of GDP in the OECD, averaging 4.9% per year. It shared the highest rate of growth of employment, 1.8% per year, with Australia and the Netherlands. Indeed, since 1993, Ireland has achieved a 4% increase in employment in each year. The social partnership programmes have also initiated innovative policy approaches in several areas. Among the most important has been the creation of area-based partnerships to devise experimental approaches to tackling long-term unemployment and economic development. Another has been the formulation of a new "national anti-poverty strategy", which coordinates the work of the many state agencies, community groups and voluntary associations. Consequently, Ireland now has a complex array of partnership structures, at both national and local level.

A significant feature has been a gradual widening of the partnership approach to include not only the traditional social partners - trade unions, employers' associations and farming organisations - but also the organisations of unemployed people, women's groups and others working to counter social exclusion. This began with the establishment of a new public body, the National Economic and Social Forum (NESF), comprising the traditional social partners, the community and voluntary groups and politicians. The Forum's role is to focus specifically on social exclusion and inequality, seeking to find consensus on policy measures which could reduce these problems. The membership of the NESC was widened to include the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, and the community and voluntary sector was given a role in the negotiation of the the most recent programme, Partnership 2000.

NESF identifies problems

The NESF has recently undertaken a review of Ireland's partnership arrangements, published in December 1997 as A framework for partnership: enriching strategic consensus through participation. This confirms that the partnership approach constitutes important progress in Irish public policy and notes that Ireland is breaking new ground in combining traditional social partners with community and voluntary groups. Nevertheless, the Forum argues that the practical arrangements are not adequate to achieve the tasks which now confront social partnership. It identifies seven problems:

  • exaggerated notions of "consensus" can stifle innovation and encourage the idea that the partnership process requires a deep level of agreement on the nature and direction of the whole economic and social system;
  • the widening of inclusion in partnership has been partial. This undermines the distinctive roles of the different partnership bodies, creates an impression of a hierarchy between them and encourages the idea that the economic and social aspects of partnership have distinct rationales;
  • all groups confront a difficulty in linking national representation to local action, but each tends to see this problem as particularly acute for them;
  • all groups feel frustration with the difficulty of turning participation in social partnership into real change;
  • the proliferation of partnership bodies places a heavy burden on organisations, and can create confusion about which body does what;
  • the monitoring procedures in the partnership system are incapable of revealing whether agreed policy approaches are working or failing, and why. Successful experiments may remain unnoticed; and
  • the relationship between social partnership and representative democracy can be problematic.

Renewed vision proposed

In order to find solutions to these problems, the report sets out a renewed vision of social partnership. This has four elements.

The first concerns the limited preconditions for effective social partnership. It is argued that partnership involves more than bargaining, engaging the partners in a process of deliberation in which they come to a shared understanding. The key requirement for this is a problem-solving approach. This can be helped, or hindered, by the design of the partnership institutions.

The report presents a new view of what a "social partner" is now. The traditional attributes of monopoly, economic function, bargaining and hierarchy are losing some of their relevance. Effective social partners are now characterised by mobilisation, coordination, action, information and new forms of advocacy.

The role of central government is also changing, in ways which are relevant to social partnership. Traditional policy-making and administration is giving way to policy entrepreneurship, monitoring, facilitating deliberation and supporting interest group formation. National-level partnership arrangements cannot be effective if they are premised on an outdated view of the power, autonomy and effectiveness of central government.

The relationship between policy-making, implementation and monitoring is changing, in ways which place monitoring, of a new sort, at the centre of policy development, and requires a new combination of all three.

In the light of these problems, and given these trends, the partnership bodies must be redesigned to achieve a much greater focus on implementation and monitoring, and to use the findings to recast national policy. To achieve this, the membership of the NESC, which undertakes strategic analysis, should be further widened. The NESF should undertake team-based exploration of implementation and monitoring in chosen policy areas.


There can be little doubt that the development of social partnership in Ireland, both at a national and community level, has given rise to some notable achievements. It has, by common consent, improved Ireland's economic performance, contributed to reducing unemployment and worked to counter social exclusion. The concept of "social partner" has also been widened to include voluntary associations, organisations representing unemployed people and women's groups.

Notwithstanding these developments and innovations, there is now a concern that all is not as it might be. Amongst the most pressing issues are:

  • first, some partnership bodies continue to feel at least partially excluded from decision-making processes and, more importantly, that this has led to a distinction between the advancement of social and economic objectives;
  • second, there is the difficulty of realising agreed policies, a difficulty not made easy by problems of linking national representation to local action; and
  • third, there is the problem of identifying and diffusing "best practice".

The NESF report identifies a number of solutions to these problems. It deserves a wide audience. (Rory O' Donnell and John Geary, University College Dublin)

A framework for partnership: enriching strategic consensus through participation (Forum report No. 16, ISBN 1-899-276-18-1) is available from Irish Government Publications, Molesworth St, Dublin 2, or from the NESF, Government Buildings, Upr Merrion St., Dublin 2, price IRL 5.

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