A New Social Dialogue – A Community and Voluntary Perspective

Posted on Monday, 14 December 2020
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Seán Healy, Social Justice Ireland, outlined why a new social dialogue process is essential at our Social Policy Conference 2020.  Below is an extract from his paper.

A New Social Dialogue - Engagement in Decision-making

If Ireland is to succeed in addressing the challenges identified it faces, the pathway to doing so must be founded on consensus, must be well-managed, and must be properly evaluated.  It has been widely recognised that Ireland’s governance was poor in certain areas prior to the economic crisis a decade ago. This is particularly so with reference to financial regulation. Moreover, that economic crisis led Government to make rash decisions, particularly on fiscal policy. These decisions were often made without any consultation, and many have since been recognised as very damaging, particularly in the case of the bank guarantee.

Reforming governance and widening participation must remain a key goal. An increased recognition of the need to include all stakeholders in the decision-making process is needed. A deliberative decision-making process, involving all stakeholders and founded on reasoned, evidence-based debate is required.  To secure a new Social Contract, participation by various sectors of society is essential. One component of real participation is recognition that everyone should have the right to participate in shaping the society in which they live and the decisions that impact on them. In the 21st century this involves more than voting in elections and referenda. Ireland needs real, regular and structured deliberative democracy[1] to ensure that all interest groups and all sectors of society can contribute to the discussion and the decision-making on the kind of society Ireland wishes to build. 

Ireland would greatly benefit from having a structure that would engage all sectors at a national level. Social dialogue helps highlight issues at an early stage which would allow them to be addressed promptly. More importantly, it ensures that the various sectors of society are involved in developing mutually acceptable solutions to problems that emerge which in turn would be most likely to ensure their support for such solutions when implemented by Government.  For such an approach to succeed it must include all five pillars i.e. employers, trade unions, farmers, community & voluntary and environmental.

As already noted, Ireland faces significant challenges in the coming decades, among them the housing and health situations, an increasing older population and the transition to a cleaner, greener economy. We need to get beyond growth and markets and recognise that, while they do have a role, they are only part of the solution. It is also important that all sectors of society – young and old, urban and rural, businesses, trade unions, farmers, community/voluntary, social inclusion and environmental – have a voice in deciding how these challenges will be met.

The National Economic Dialogue (NED) is an example of the potential for such dialogue. Government held the first NED in July 2015 and has repeated the process annually since. Social Justice Ireland welcomed this deliberative approach to policymaking but argued that it should meet more regularly than once a year, and should broaden its deliberations beyond the economy.

If Government wishes for all of society to take responsibility for producing a more viable social and economic model, it must involve all major sectors in society in shaping it.

Social dialogue involving all sectors of society enables the development of mutually acceptable solutions to problems that emerge. This in turn would make it more likely that support for such solutions can be secured when implemented by Government. People who have been involved in shaping decisions are far more likely to take responsibility for implementing these decisions.

Social Justice Ireland believe that Government should also take further steps to increase the transparency of budgetary and other important decisions, as well as further increase their research and evaluation capacity. The Irish budgetary process leaves a great deal to be desired. The level of engagement in the budget process by the Houses of the Oireachtas is low by EU standards. The level of transparency with the wider public is also too low.  I recognise the work done by the  Oireachtas Committee and the Parliamentary Budget Office but much more remains to be done. For example, Government should publish its analysis of the distributional impact of budgetary measures on Budget day, and engage in public debate on that analysis. This should be a statutory responsibility for Government.


The model for society outlined earlier in this conference by Colette Bennett and summarised here, and the policy framework underpinning it are based on a very simple premise: that we understand where we are as a society; that we can see where we want to go; and that there is a logical pathway, that will get us there.  That is what a genuine Social Dialogue can achieve.
Ireland has for too long been afflicted by a state of affairs whereby we understand the issues, we know what needs to be done to improve matters, yet we find ourselves failing to take the correct steps. It is time to change that.
It is time, too, to acknowledge that the model of development being pursued has serious deficits, leading as it has to unacceptable levels of poverty and deprivation, inferior quality public services, environmental degradation, and an unsustainable future.

Contained in Social Justice Ireland’s proposals for a New Social Contract is a comprehensive framework setting out the current situation and the issues we face, the goals that we wish to reach as a society, and the policy changes needed to attain them. It is clear that each of the five dimensions we identified are interrelated and must be acted on simultaneously.

Having expounded on the need for an overhaul of capitalism as we know it, it is perhaps with some irony I give the closing words of this paper to Milton Friedman (1982), that great exponent of neoliberalism and winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1976.

‘Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around… Our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable’.

We are now at such a moment. Ireland, and indeed the planet, faces several crises ranging from pandemic to pollution to poverty; a situation where ‘business as usual’ can mean only social and environmental catastrophe. Social Justice Ireland has developed alternatives to existing policies and advocated for them for many years. We have reached a point where adoption of a new Social Contract is surely a necessity. These ideas and alternatives to existing policies, ideas that would result in a fairer more just society, are now available. All sectors of Irish society should be engaged in an ongoing Social Dialogue to decide how best to proceed. Ireland needs a new Social Contract and a new Social Dialogue.

The full paper is available to download here. 

[1] See Gutmann & Thompson (2004) and Healy and Reynolds (2011) for more on the

concept of deliberative democracy.