Why has Irish Social Partnership Survived?

AuthorJimmy Donaghey,Paul Teague
Published date01 March 2009
Date01 March 2009
Why has Irish Social Partnership
Paul Teague and Jimmy Donaghey
The present system of social partnership in Ireland is in its twentieth year. A
range of explanations have been put forward to explain why social partnership
has been so durable even though it does not possess the institutional endowments
often considered necessary to sustain tripartite industrial relations arrange-
ments. Although these accounts are considered to have merits, this article
suggests that they also suffer from a range of weaknesses. The article suggests
that the longevity of the social partnership regime is a result of it being part of
an unorthodox system of institutional complementarities that triggered a spec-
tacular period of economic and employment growth.
1. Introduction
For the past 20 years, Irish industrial relations have been governed by a
national system of social partnership. Before 1987, there had been attempts
at establishing tripartite institutions involving trade unions, employers and
government to regulate wage growth, but invariably, these lasted only for
a few years. In the literature, the short life-cycle of these initiatives was
attributed to Ireland not having institutional arrangements that support
corporatist wage determination, for example, encompassing trade union and
employer organizations or a social democratic, ‘labour-friendly’ government.
The consensus view was that the Anglo-Saxon characteristics of the Irish
economy made north European corporatism unsuitable for the country (Har-
diman 1992: 342–6; Roche 1992: 319–23). After seven national social agree-
ments, under which a largely centralized form of wage determination has
operated, this view appears threadbare. Patently, Ireland has been able to
sustain a form of tripartite industrial relations arrangements, which throws
up the puzzle of why Ireland has defied the literature and has been successful
in sustaining a national system of concertation between employers, trade
unions and government.
Paul Teague and Jimmy Donaghey are at Queen’s University Belfast.
British Journal of Industrial Relations doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2008.00706.x
47:1 March 2009 0007–1080 pp. 55–78
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2009. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.
This article suggests that the various analytical frameworks that have been
used to explain the sustainability of Irish social partnership are deficient in
one way or another. Instead, it argues that the longevity of social partnership
is as a result of its contribution to a system of institutional complementarities
that has driven the phenomenal period of economic growth enjoyed by the
country recently. The article is organized as follows. Section 2 assesses the
three main analytical frameworks that have been used to explain the Irish
model of social partnership and suggests that, while useful, these possess a
different range of shortcomings. Section 3 outlines the notion of institutional
complementarities and explains why it is useful in explaining the dynamics
of Irish social partnership. After this assessment, the article describes in
Sections 4 and 5 how social partnership has dovetailed with the extreme
openness of the Irish economy, creating a range of dynamic effects. Section
6 suggests that social partnership has survived because it did not seek to
establish the productivity and distributional coalitions normally associated
with traditional corporatism. Section 7 sets out the reasons why trade unions
have remained committed to the social partnership process. The penultimate
section highlights the more important lessons that can be drawn from the
Irish experience. The conclusions bring together the arguments of the article.
2. Explaining Irish social partnership
Three main views have emerged to explain the operation of the Irish social
partnership regime. One argument is that Irish social partnership departs
from traditional corporatism, as it does not simply involve trade union and
employer organizations bargaining hard to reach wage agreements, but also
includes a wide number of civic associations engaging in deliberative problem
solving that leads to new social and economic policies (Baccaro 2006: 195;
O’Donnell and Thomas 2002: 176–78). On this view, social partnership not
only ensures that wage levels are consistent with broader macroeconomic
policy, but also creates shared understandings between Government, busi-
ness and civil society on what needs to be done to govern Ireland effectively
and fairly. It has created a new form of economic and social governance,
which is sometimes described as ‘post-corporatist’ (O’Donnell 2000;
O’Donnell and O’Reardon 2000: 252; O’Donnell and Thomas 2002: 186).
The second view suggests that Irish social partnership can be seen as a form
of ‘competitive corporatism’. On this account, Irish social partnership is
regarded as creating corporatist-type structures to regulate pay levels without
building a significant social dimension that places institutional constraints on
employers, which was such a feature of these arrangements in 1950s and
1960s Europe. It is recognized that some new public policies and institutional
relationships and networks have been created (Roche 2007a: 418–9), but the
main thrust of social partnership has been to develop the conditions to
improve the performance of organizations and the domestic economy (Roche
and Cradden 2003: 75–6; Roche 2007a: 397–400; Turner 2002). This
56 British Journal of Industrial Relations
© Blackwell Publishing Ltd/London School of Economics 2009.

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