The role of mediation in the resolution of two industrial disputes in Ireland. Towards a theoretical understanding

Publication Date29 Jul 2014
AuthorDeirdre Curran
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations
The role of mediation in the
resolution of two industrial
disputes in Ireland
Towards a theoretical understanding
Deirdre Curran
Department of Management, National University of Ireland Galway,
Galway, Ireland
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to explore the impact of mediation on two long-r unning
collective industrial disp utes in Ireland using a theoretica l framework established in the
Design/methodology/approach – The paper presents a detailed qualitative analysis of two
disputes. In both cases a panel of mediators was invited to intervene when the established dispute
resolution structures and processes had failed and impasse had been prolonged. Each member of the
mediation panels, and the lead union representative, was interviewed about their perception of the
mediation process and its impact. Interview questions centred around a set of mediation “Outcome
Determinants” identified by Wall et al. (2001). Following Wall et al.s proposal, Lewin’s (1951) Force
Field Analysis theory is applied as a theoretical lens for understanding thesubtle impact ofmediation
in these cases.
Findings – The empirical evidence suggests that while mediation did not lead directly to settlement,
it influenced the resolution of these disputes. The disputes were a-typical in that most collective
disputes in Ireland are resolved through established industrial relations structures and processes,
either at firm level or through State-funded agents/agencies. However, intractable disputes occur
periodically and there is an on-going need of this type of specialised ad hoc mediation. The Wall et al.
framework combined with Force Field Analysis theory, provide a theoretical lens through which these
disputes can be analysed and understood.
Practical implications – An understanding of the nuanced impact of mediation is useful for
justifying the continuation of this valuable approach. There is also some scope for predicting the likely
impact of mediation in advance of engagement or at least allowing the mediators to explore the status
of the Outcome Determinants related to a specific case in order to develop a tailored mediation
Originality/value – This paper is unique in that it takes an existing theoretical framework and tests
its application in two case disputes. The value of the framework is thus highlighted. Further
application of the framework to other dispute scenarios would facilitate its development as a tool of
understanding and some limited prediction. Mediation in this type of context has not been formally
researched before. Public policy and theoretical implications of the work are highlighted in the
concluding section.
Keywords Ireland, Industrial relations, Mediation, Workplace conflict,
Alternative dispute resolution, Force field analysis
Paper type Research paper
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received 15 June 2013
Revised 1 October 2013
31 December 2013
Accepted 14 February 2014
Employee Relations
Vol. 36 No. 5, 2014
pp. 496-515
rEmeraldGroup PublishingLimited
DOI 10.1108/ER-06-2013-0066
The author wishes to thank all of the participants in this research. Without them such unique
insight into the mediation process would not have been possible. The author also wishesto thank
her colleagues Dr Mary Quinn, Maureen Maloney and Professor Mau ra Sheahan for their helpful
contributions to various drafts.
Mediation has become increasingly popular in the Irish industrial relations
sphere, as an alternative process for dispute resolution, albeit mainly in the realm of
individual/small group disputes. This mirrors developments in the UK (Ridley-Duff
and Bennett, 2011) and the USA, where Lipsky and Avgar (2004) refer to the
increased use of ADR (including mediation) in employment disputes, as a
“paradigmatic shift” (p. 176).
In Ireland, the Irish Labour Relations Commission has an established “Workplace
Mediation Service” facilitating the resolution of “individual and small group conflicts”
( Mediation is also the default process offered by the Equality Tribunal in
discrimination cases. Recent developments in the reform of Irish industrial relations
structures suggest that the use of mediation, as a dispute resolution process, is set to
increase further.
The popularity of mediation has not been as apparent in cases of collective
industrial disputes in Ireland. The traditional approach to coll ective dispute
resolution has seen the parties involved follow a linear series of steps, and draw
on a range of publicly provided dispute resolution agencies, in their attempts at
resolution. Once the dispute moves beyond the workplace the preferred process is
conciliation, through which an independent third par ty facilitates discussions
with a view to finding a resolution. This process proves successful in over 80 per cent
of cases ( However, from time to time collective disputes arise which are
particularly intractable and fail to be resolved via the traditional channels. In these
cases an ad hoc mediation process is sometimes employed as an alternative mechanism
for dispute resolution.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the role that mediation played in two
high-profile collective disputes in Ireland. Both disputes centred on the closure of
manufacturing plants and the reluctance of the employer to honour collective
redundancy payment agreements. Both disputes involved protracted industrial action
by the workers involved, and both attracted significant media coverage. In both cases
a three-member mediation panel became involved once the disputes reached imp asse,
in an attempt to open up possibilities for resolution.
The author will begin by elaborating on the use of mediation in dispute resolution in
Ireland. A theoretical framework, developed by Wall et al. (2001) aimed at summarising
a decade of literature on mediation will be presented, focusing specifically on the
factors that determine the outcomes of mediation. Wall et al. go on to propose Lewin’s
(1951) Force-Field Analysis theory as a lens through which we can understand the
impact of these Outcome Determinants in examples of mediation. The author will then
apply the Outcome Determinants of Wall et al.’s framework to the two case disputes in
question, and draw on Force-Field Analysis to provide an understanding of the impact
of mediation in these cases. The paper will draw conclusions about the usefulness of
Wall et al.’s framework of analysis, and the implications for future use of mediation in
collective industrial disputes in Ireland.
Mediation is a conflict resolution process in which a neutral third party(s), with no
authority to impose a solution, intervenes to facilitate disputing par ties to reach
acceptable outcomes. Mediation has become increasingly popular as an alternative to
litigation in the resolution of employment disputes. It is essentially an exercise in
structured communication, where the mediator uses his/her expertise to open up
Resolution of two
disputes in

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