Friday 30 September 2016

Bertie Ahern: Next government needs to look at a new framework of social partnership

As the Luas dispute drags on and other cases come down the line, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern recalls parallels from his time as labour minister

Bertie Ahern in conversation with Ronald Quinlan

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Photo: Caroline Quinn
Photo: Caroline Quinn

For nearly 30 years now we've had a good industrial relations record in this country through a combination of five or six social partnership agreements that gave us stability across all sectors of the economy. Social partnership led to circumstances where most industrial relations issues were negotiated and that eliminated most of the strikes.

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Back in the early 1980s and before the social partnership model was introduced here, Ireland had one of the worst strike records in Europe. This seems to be the first time in over 30 years that we are drifting back in that direction. If we don't restore social partnership of the old variety, we have to introduce a new mechanism that will help to bind things together. If the country doesn't have such a mechanism, and we try to deal with each grievance from each employment sector separately, it will prove to be a nightmare. Dealing with industrial unrest on a case-by-case basis and in a piecemeal fashion didn't work that way in the past and I don't believe it will work that way now either.

With the current Luas dispute, and with so many potential industrial disputes coming down the line; the possibility is there that damage will be done to the image of the country. At a domestic level, industrial disputes damage productivity and they damage the image of the public service as people begin to lose confidence in it.

Whoever forms the new government needs to recognise that it's inevitable people will, after seven years of giving concessions in response to the financial crisis, try to claw something back and that there has to be a mechanism for handling these demands. Such demands haven't had to be handled for several years.

The precise parallel for what we are starting to experience now is to be found in the period between 1980 and 1987 where there was negative growth, high unemployment and high taxes. When it came to 1987, people saw it as their claw-back period. We had to devise social partnership to deal with that.

Coming back to today and once again, we've been through a period of six or seven years where the country experienced negative growth, high unemployment and high taxes. We're now coming back out of this as we did in 1987. The parallel in terms of the country's economic fortunes is there, as is the need for a mechanism to deal with people's expectations in a co-ordinated manner.

While it has had its detractors, social partnership certainly isn't a matter of just throwing money at the problem. In the early days of social partnership, there was very little money to give to people.

What happened was that the unions and the employers came together on a number of issues to help the country survive the terrible economic difficulties of the 1980s. Then as times got better, partnership led to the sharing out of some of that success.

In the case of the recent financial crisis, people agreed to certain things, recognising that the country was on its knees. Naturally, they will now try to recover some of what they conceded. These are all matters for negotiation.

What I fear however is that if each group comes forward individually, we'll be back to the type of scenario I had to deal with in my first year as Minister for Labour in 1987. In that year, there was a sugar strike, a fire brigade strike, an ambulance strike, a B&I [ferries] strike and then there was the first big strike with the ESB.

If the new government has to deal with the kind of scenario that I faced in 1987, it will be in a crisis situation very quickly and the image of the country will be damaged.

With so many issues coming to the surface both within the public and private sectors, I believe that a new framework of social partnership or some variation or amendment of it should be looked at, otherwise the unions, employers and the Workplace Relations Commission are going to have to deal with each issue separately. That would place huge pressure on all of them. We can already see those pressures emerging now.

In terms of the current [Luas] dispute, I'm not going to apportion blame to anyone. Everybody simply needs to take a few days to calm it down and then to try to keep on negotiating. The certainty with every industrial dispute is that it has to be solved, and that it will be solved. But for this to happen, everyone just has to calm down and to work harder to resolve the issues regardless of the rights or wrongs involved. The only place the issues are going to be resolved is at the negotiating table.

In conversation with Ronald Quinlan

Sunday Independent

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