Fintan O’Toole: Why social partnership needs to be revived

The system had flaws under Bertie Ahern but it did three indispensable things

If the aim is for Ireland to have the best education system in Europe in 10 years, we then have to figure out whether you achieve this by discriminating against new entrants to teaching. Photograph: Tommy Clancy

If the aim is for Ireland to have the best education system in Europe in 10 years, we then have to figure out whether you achieve this by discriminating against new entrants to teaching. Photograph: Tommy Clancy


If there are children in the room please do not read this column aloud. It contains words that, even in this age of vulgarity, are uniquely unspeakable: “social partnership”. They are words that lie buried in the toxic slagheap of the Celtic Tiger’s verbal detritus, somewhere under “fully capitalised”, “soft landing” and “the boom is getting boomer”. But they have to be excavated. The Garda and teachers’ industrial actions are telling us something: we need a social contract in which workers can see a bigger picture, a set of collective benefits that make it worth their while to moderate individual demands.

The death of social partnership, which once seemed to be deeply embedded in Irish public life, is not so strange. By the time it reached its zenith under Bertie Ahern, it was highly problematic in a number of ways. The infamous “ATM machine” of public sector benchmarking dispensed bonanza-time illusions as well as crisp banknotes. The secretiveness of that process exemplified the way social partnership had become a closed-off world of deal-making with little room for public scrutiny.

The democratic institutions of the State – not least the Oireachtas – came to seem like sideshows: the real business was done in the talks between unions, employers, farmers and the top echelons of the Civil Service who acted as brokers. The process contributed to the Bertification of the State – the idea that democracy is essentially a large-scale version of local patronage, with something for everyone in the audience.

The consensus mentality underpinned the groupthink that marginalised critical thinking. Most damagingly, by using tax cuts to compensate workers for wage moderation, social partnership contributed to the fantasy that we could improve public services while cutting taxes.

So the charge sheet is pretty long. But social partnership also did three things that remain indispensable. It forced the governing systems to articulate some kind of agreed medium-term vision. It encouraged workers with strong bargaining power to use it altruistically, deploying their muscle not just on their own behalf but to help out weaker and lower paid groups – there was actually some real solidarity. And it gave a voice, through the inclusion of civil society groups, to people outside the workforce – the marginalised and vulnerable were not sufficiently heard, but the idea that they had a stake in the process was at least given some formal recognition.

And bear in mind what happened when social partnership was scrapped. Did we get a more open, accountable, democratic, inclusive way of doing things?  No – we got an even more closed, centralised and authoritarian system in which economic policy and the division of resources were decided by four political players (the members of the dubiously constitutional Economic Management Committee) and the entirely unaccountable troika. And the marginalised were the biggest losers. Huge social shifts like the doubling of consistent child poverty were engineered quietly, coldly and brutally. We didn’t get a better form of social contract – the weak had contracts taken out on them.

To grasp why we need a renewed and radically improved form of social partnership, just think about the current disputes. One of the key things a proper social partnership process would be doing is asking critical questions. What are the goals we need to work towards over the next decade in education and policing? And then how should the work of teachers and guards be organised and rewarded so as to achieve those goals?

In education, the Government says its aim is for Ireland to have the best education system in Europe in 10 years’ time. I think this is hyperbolic but I’m not the Government. So if this is the aim, we then have to figure out whether you get to be the best in Europe by discriminating against new entrants to teaching, by making teachers put in extra hours that are generally a waste of time and energy and by casualising the profession. And if you don’t, you have to put in place a broad social contract that maps out how our teachers are going to be the best in Europe and how they’re going to be rewarded for this excellence.

Likewise the Garda. Everybody knows that this is an institution in crisis, that public satisfaction with its services has declined, and that its reputation as a disciplined force is in serious jeopardy. So the question of pay and conditions for its members can’t be isolated from the larger questions about public confidence in the Garda. The key issues are: what do we want the Garda to look like in five years and how do pay increases help us to get a better police force? And those issues can’t be tackled without a larger social consensus – the public needs to know what it is paying for.

We’re not, after all, doomed to repeat mistakes. It is quite possible to construct a model of social partnership that avoids the errors of the Celtic Tiger era by being open, inclusive and democratically accountable and that rewards people who are delivering great services. The alternative is that every group uses its muscle to get as much as it can from a State that reacts in its usual piecemeal and short-term way.