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As the economy recovers from recession, there has been talk of a return to social partnership. Might it happen? Not according to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny. In a reply to a Parliamentary Question on 20 January, he said that – “We are not going back to social partnership the way it was”. But does this rule out a different and lighter form of social partnership,or social dialogue?

What is Social Partnership?

Social Partnership agreements were made for over twenty years, between Governments and employers, trade unions, farmers and other social partners. They included commitments in a wide range of policy areas, not just pay policy. The process started in 1987, and continued with three-yearly agreements until 2009.  The fiscal crisis saw the end of such agreements. The inauguration of the Croke Park and Haddington Road Agreements were much narrow in their focus. They related only to the public sector and involved agreements on reduced pay and conditions – http://www.per.gov.ie/haddington-road-agreement/

Many would argue that social partnership was a key factor in Ireland’s economic success for nearly quarter of a century. But there are mixed views about the benefits of the process. A stable pay and industrial relations climate was provided. It was better for the key social partners to solve economic and social problems through negotiation rather than through industrial and social conflict. The process was facilitated by the work of National Economic and Social Council (NESC). From 1986 to 2006 NESC regularly produced strategy reports which were the basis for negotiating the social partnership agreements, as well as contributing to the development of overall Government policy – http://www.nesc.ie/

What of the negative views. While partnership may have has helped to ensure an economy that worked well, every citizen was not part of the process. Moreover, not every public policy area was covered by the process. Also, significant decision-making, in a number of areas, was outside the control of elected politicians. As the Taoiseach put it in his recent reply to a Dail Question – “What I found wrong with social partnership was that all of those meetings took place in secret away from this institution”.

What now?

With the return to economic growth, the matter of pay increases has again raised its head. Jack O’Connor, SIPTU General President, said recently that in the coming months his union will embark on a major campaign for pay increases of 5% across the economy. Responding to the SIPTU comments, IBEC, the group that represents Irish business, said suggestions that either business or government could afford to award 5% pay rises this year were reckless, foolish and utterly detached from economic reality. And so the question arises as to whether there should be a forum, embracing trade unions and employers, to discuss issues of pay, but also other economic and social issues that are relevant to ensuring a peaceful industrial relations climate.

There appears to be little appetite to return to a social partnership process per se, with all the bells and whistles of the previous process. A somewhat more modest process seems to be a possibility. Some have called this a ‘Social Partnership lite’. Kieran Mulvey, Chief Executive, Labour Relations Commission, has provided a useful outline of what might be involved. He suggested that it would be a return to a limited form of Social Compact around pay, institutional reform, pensions, employment law, employment programmes and the “living wage”. However, he admitted at the PAI Annual HR Conference last December that his suggestion had been rebuffed in some quarters. So if a ‘Social Partnership lite’ is to have any prospect of becoming a reality, it clearly must be democratically accountable; its proceedings open and transparent, while recognising the primacy of the Government and the Oireachtas.

Tom Ferris is a consultant economist specialising in Public Sector Governance, Better Regulation and Transport Economics. He was Senior Economist in the Department of Transport until February 2006. Since then, he has undertaken consultancy projects for the World Bank, the OECD, the High Level Group on Business Regulation, and a number of private sector companies. He is an occasional lecturer in public sector economics at NUIG, UCC, and Public Affairs Ireland and he writes regularly for PAI Publications. He holds a Masters degree in economics from University College Dublin and a Fellowship from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.

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