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From Catholic Church dominance to social partnership promise and now economic crisis, little changes in Irish social policy

Joe Moran*


This article examines the way the Irish state has pursued its social policy orientations. It discusses the state’s relationship with the two major power blocs which provided legitimation from 1922 until the current economic crisis, the Catholic Church and social partnership, but focuses primarily on the latter. It is argued that social policy played an unfulfilled secondary role in the social partnership relationship, where economic competitiveness was the primary thrust of government policy throughout the partnership era. The article highlights a number of flaws in social partnership which have led to this conclusion. Government is now left without an influential internal partner and must turn to powerful external institutions for its legitimising discourse.


The fundamental paradigm of Irish social policy has not changed since the nascent development of a welfare state begun under British rule in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (for an historical outline see Powell, 1992; Considine and Dukelow, 2009). A consistent feature of the state’s approach to social policy has been its willingness to share institutional responsibility for the welfare of its citizens with private, that is, non-state organisations. This was formally started under British rule in the nineteenth century when the welfare of its Irish Catholic citizens was largely given over to the Catholic Church (Inglis, 1998). In the twentieth century the newly established Irish Free State allowed the Catholic Church to continue its domination over moral and welfare matters, and although the powerful control of that Church diminished in the latter part of the century, it still remained a potent force as it was the main non-state provider of a range of education, health and, to a lesser extent, social services. With the diminution of the power of the Catholic Church the state strengthened its grip over policy making and implementation. Since 1987 the state has incorporated the ‘social partners’ into the policy making process and, in so doing, legitimised a new institutional approach, which at the same time cut off potential dissent and oppositional politics (Allen, 2000; Kirby, 2002; Meade, 2005).

The Irish state has used two essentially different power blocs to legitimise its public policies since its foundation. In the Catholic Church it had a natural ally, born of the same historical cloth as the political, administrative and economic elites of the new state. This was a relationship which remained more or less intact for 70 years. The subsequent relationship with the newer power bloc, the social partners, was born out of economic and political necessity in the late 1980s. Fruitful though this association was for the state for over 20 years there was not to be the same embeddedness in this latter relationship as there had been in the previous one with the Catholic Church where there was a greater equality between the two main players. It will be argued in this article that the state dominated its relationship with the social partners to fulfil its political and economic agendas. The consequences for social policy in this relationship was that it played an unfulfilled secondary role, used to give legitimacy to political and economic decisions which proved to be primarily for the benefit of a newly emerging elite in the context of global capitalism.

The Catholic Church, the state and Irish social policyToC

The Catholic Church has had immeasurable influence and power over the political and social trajectory of Irish politics and society (Fahey, 2007; Inglis, 1998). When considering such power it is usually in the context of Irish self-government – ‘Home Rule as Rome Rule’. However, this ignores the reality of the power of the Catholic Church in Irish society and in relation to the body politic under previous British rule. Through the acquiescence of nineteenth century British governments the Catholic Church gained increasing control over the Catholic Irish in many facets of their lives, including education, health, welfare and especially, their morals (Inglis, 1998). Among the key reasons for allowing the Catholic Church to begin to exert control over the Irish masses was the fear in Britain of the potential harm the impoverished Irish would cause if they were not controlled and retained in their own cities, towns, villages and rural settings. In the early part of the nineteenth century the poor Irish were beginning to invade the burgeoning cities of Britain in search of work (Crossman, 2006; MacRaild, 2006). The British government had lost faith in the native Irish political leadership to manage the hordes so an alternative was needed. The Catholic Church took on this role so that ‘(b)y 1845, the Irish Catholic Church had become an independent power bloc to which the British state had decided to bequeath the task of civilising and socially controlling the Irish people’ (Inglis, 1998: 102-103). The Catholic Church’s primary vehicle for executing its control was by educating and caring for children, in order to ensure the socialisation of young people (Powell, 1992). As a result, the Catholic Church fought a long battle to ensure its control of education during the nineteenth century (Coolahan, 2003), control it maintains to this day. Education was not the only area of interest pursued by the Catholic Church to secure its domination of the Irish people, as the intervention of Catholic religious orders in caring for the destitute sick was another effort in evangelisation (Magray, 1998) which emerged during the early nineteenth century. It suited the British governments of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to allow the Catholic Church to engage in educational, health and welfare activities but this did not happen without some conflict, in which the Church always appears to have gained the upper hand (Coolahan, 2003).

By the time independence was realised and the Irish Free State was declared the Catholic Church held enormous power in Ireland, power which would be used to influence political, economic and social life for generations to come. Inglis (1998: 77) describes well the power relations between Catholic Church and state since independence:

The two major power blocs in Irish society since 1922 have been the state and the Catholic Church. … However, whereas the state exercises its power in a wide number of social fields, the Church has exercised its power mainly in those social fields relating to education, care and morality. It has been on moral issues, particularly in relation to health, education and the family that most struggles between these two power blocs have taken place. But the history of the relationship between Church and state in modern Ireland has been characterised not by struggle but rather by peaceful coexistence, each maintaining the power of the other.

Inglis outlines the consequences of this relationship for a number of dimensions of Irish life. ‘It was this institutional monopoly which inhibited a rational differentiation between religion and politics which, in turn, had a limiting effect on social, political, and economic development in Ireland’ (ibid.: 79). The state’s founding fathers (and they were mostly men) have been praised for giving the nation life and holding it together in the face of internecine strife, economic collapse and the rise of fascism (Burke, 1999). However, they showed little vision of what Ireland should offer its people beyond the closed myopic society championed by de Valera in his legendary ‘comely maidens’ address. In this period the Catholic Church and its social philosophy dominated the thinking of government as it passed laws, culminating in the 1937 Constitution of Ireland. Those politicians who openly dared to challenge the Catholic Church were left to lick their wounds, as Dr Noel Browne found, with his ill-fated proposals for the beginnings of a national health service, the ‘mother and child scheme’ in 1951 (Browne, 1986).

The power and authority of the Catholic Church was to remain strong up to the 1990s and its influence was particularly forceful and successful in its efforts to resist social reform in the domain where it saw itself as holding the moral monopoly, namely, on issues such as contraception, divorce and abortion. There is much consensus that the changed role of the Catholic Church in Ireland was an inevitable result of modernisation. Garvin (2004: 14) says that Church power had weakened since about 1960 in part because the elites believed that its ‘intellectual conformism and authoritarianism had failed the country and even endangered its future’. Inglis (1998: 76) observes ‘it may be more than a coincidence that the decline in the institutional power of the Church in the 1990s has been associated not only with the emergence of a new individualism, but with rapid economic growth’. Claffey (2009: 7) suggests, in the context of a broader discussion on secularism, that ‘I think it is fair to say that in general terms, we have followed ... large parts of the developed world where secularisation of one kind or another has almost inevitably followed technological and socio-political modernity’. Maher (2009: 3) broadens the explanation for this fundamental change and indicates that a number of forces are at play:

It is difficult to think of any area of Irish society that has changed so dramatically in recent decades as the attitude to organized religion and Roman Catholicism in particular. This is due to a number of different factors, most notably the revelations of clerical sex abuse in the 1990s, increased prosperity during the Celtic Tiger years, greater mobility, disillusionment in relation to the pillars of Irish society, Church and State, and, more recently, the banking sector.

Maher (ibid.) also suggests that politicians became more independent in their stance when they realised that the hierarchy had less power. Fahey (1994) says that it was not possible to lay the change which was occurring solely at the foot of modernisation. Yet he does acknowledge that the Church was ‘beset by difficulties’ and

It seems inescapable that the church’s institutional influence is steadily in decline ... . The institutional system is now too big, diversified and complex for the church to have the same control as it had in the past ... the church has now lost much of its former role as president or overseer of institutional life and is becoming but one more lobby struggling to have its voice heard in conflicts over social development (ibid.: 372).

Although the Catholic Church retained a predominant position into the boom years in the provision of education, health and to a lesser extent in welfare provision its direct influence on the population and policy making declined. Inglis (2008: 180) in his perceptive Global Ireland: Same Difference suggests that ‘what has happened in Ireland is that … it has switched from Catholic capitalism to consumer capitalism’. By the end of the 1980s the state was in the process of replacing the Catholic Church as a power bloc with social partnership.

Social partnershipToC

By the end of the 1980s social gains which had been slowly achieved over thirty years were dealt a severe blow with the implementation of cutbacks in public services in order to prevent a public fiscal crisis and economic meltdown. The 1980s were characterised as a period of stagnation both economically and socially, where the Catholic Church wielded its power in a number of publicly fought political campaigns on moral issues such as abortion, contraception and divorce (Conroy, 1999). It was in the face of this crisis that social partnership was born as the then Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, supported by his Cabinet and in particular, the Minister for Labour, Bertie Ahern, promoted tripartite collective wage bargaining. This process of collective wage bargaining had limited success when attempted in the 1970s, but was deemed to be the way out of the financial crisis that confronted the country in the late 1980s (Bacarro, 2003). It is ironic that Haughey’s antipathy to socialism (Ferriter, 2005) did not hinder his engagement with the left-wing, egalitarian model of neo-corporatism (Roche and Cradden, 2003). Roche and Cradden (ibid.: 87) give an explanation as to why this might have been so, ‘what is seen to shape governments’ agendas and modes of engagement with interest groups are acute economic and fiscal problems and the search for competitive advantage in a more globalised international economic order’.

The Irish neo-corporatist social partnership which emerged in the late 1980s was adapted to the ascendant neo-liberal economic model and re-classified by Roche and Cradden (ibid.), following Rhodes (2001), as ‘competitive corporatism’, based on pay agreements to boost national competitiveness, controlled and sustainable public expenditure, social security and pension reform, and increased labour flexibility. Seven social partnership agreements followed between 1987 and 2006. The tri-partism of government, employers and unions expanded in 1996 to include a broad range of civil society groups representing the community and voluntary (C&V) sector – a move which was outside the norms of the neo-corporatist model. Despite the accredited success of the social partnership model for economic development not all are convinced of the benefits for society of the model, particularly for weaker groups (Meade, 2005). Allen (2000) and Kirby (2002) are among those who have highlighted the limitations of social partnership. Allen (2000) claims that the boom benefited the business classes and highly paid professionals. Kirby (2002: 163) likewise argues that social partnership is implicated in what he terms an ‘inegalitarian social impact’. He is of the view that the state has used social partnership to boost international competitiveness and at the same time maintain a minimum welfare net (Kirby, 2002). Furthermore, Meade (2005) highlights that key C&V organisations were not convinced of the effectiveness of their participation in providing anything beyond a limited level of protection, which did not in any way change the ideological positioning of the state on issues of poverty and inequality. Hardiman (2006), Larragy (2006) and Roche (2009) all concur with the assessment of the limited role of the C&V pillar in the partnership process. Hardiman (2006) points out that the C&V sector were so marginal to the process that threats to walk out and actual self-removal from the process did not halt or significantly delay any agreement. Furthermore, such actions could lead to reduction in government funding for offending groups (ibid.).

Just as was the case in the state’s relationship with the Catholic Church, the hegemony of a power bloc consisting of government and powerful non-state actors seriously limits the potential for alternative policy approaches. It also contributes to the institutionalisation of the state’s control over large sections of the population in the economic and social spheres. In so doing, institutionalised social partnership has aided Irish governments over the past twenty years to pursue their economic and social agendas without any meaningful dissent and thus in part, sown the seeds of the current crisis. But defining social partnership as a hegemonic power bloc is not to equate it with the previous singular authoritarian and centralised model of control used by the state and the Catholic Church. Nor is it possible to declare that the new relationship was characterised by ‘peaceful coexistence’, to use Inglis’s (1998) description of state and Catholic Church relations for much of the twentieth century. Van Dyk (2009: 78), in her outline of a theoretical framework for the analysis of consensus in social partnership, says that ‘consensus has always been accompanied by intense conflicts about its implementation’. Hardiman (2006) in her discussion on social partnership as ‘flexible network governance’ demonstrates that the partnership relationship was conflictual and contentious, and required management through institutional means. Bacarro (2003) suggests that the Irish model of partnership is based on democratic principles, and not on hierarchy and coercion. He points out that in Ireland the ‘structure of the interest representation system is much more fragmented, and the disciplinary power of central echelons much more limited’ than was the norm for successful corporatism (ibid.: 686). There were, according to Bacarro (ibid.), three powerful forces which maintained the partnership model; one was the democratic instincts of those involved, the second was the promise and expectation of reward, and the third was the fear of not being included. These reasons were sufficiently powerful to ensure that social partnership remained intact even in circumstances of conflict. The outcomes were undoubtedly to the advantage of a government strategy which coincided with the ideology of global capitalism and thus benefited employers and economic elites (O’Toole, 2009).

Of course there were gains for other groupings in the partnership process but these were considerably less in comparison to the political gains for the ruling parties and the economic gains for the bourgeoning local wealthy elites and transnational corporations. The representatives of workers and the marginalised, the trade unions and the C&V sector, can be credited with some gains during this period for their respective constituencies (O’Toole, 2003). Larragy (2006: 395) writes of the ‘moderating influence’ of the C&V pillar during the various negotiations that took place throughout its participation in the partnership model. The trade unions can claim that during the boom workers enjoyed increased take home pay, there was full employment and emigration had ended. However, notwithstanding these gains the trade unions have been criticised for their role in the partnership model. Labour Senator Brendan Ryan (2008) in an article in Doctrine and Life both excoriates the trade unions for their role in the social partnership process and sums up the dilemma they faced.

The leadership of our trade unions are, to put it at its most charitable, cowed by the prospect of exclusion. Transfixed, it seems to me, by the UK experience, they are determined never to allow themselves to be marginalised in the way Thatcherism did for them nearly thirty years ago. So they make huge economic compromises and dress them up in the inclusive all-embracing language of social partnership. How can we be in a society which sees itself as having institutionalised partnership and still be regarded as the second or third most ‘free’ economy in the industrialised world – that regard coming from many of the most vocal advocates of ruthless capitalism. How can trades unions tolerate a situation where they negotiate with organisations some of whose members are dedicated to ensuring that trade unions never see the inside of the their ‘factory gate’? How can you have partnerships where one half of the partnership refuses to accept the right of the other partner to exist? You can only have it when the alternative seems so much worse (ibid.: 25-26).

Allen (2009: 202) is even more scathing of the trade union leadership:

The state regards them only as labour brokers – useful for imposing discipline on their members but marginal when other methods can be employed. During the boom times, social partnership was used to keep wage increases down and to win agreement for neoliberal policies that were wrapped in the vacuous language of ‘social inclusion’, but when the crash occurred, the employers’ and the government’s agenda changed. Their solution lay in outright wage cuts to restore ‘competitiveness’ and, while the union leaders might be consulted, the flattery was over if they did not assent.

In an interview with Carl O’Brien (2010) in The Irish Times, David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions acknowledges the limitations of both social partnership as a model and in particular highlights the limitations of the trade union influence in that model, especially in the sphere of social policy. Begg is quoted as saying

Partnership was better at solving problems than changing society. … If we had that much influence, we wouldn’t have the enduring level of inequality we have. It did manage – through sustained economic expansion – to help end emigration. That was its great achievement. It amuses me when I read this stuff about the kind of power we had, but as for domestic social policy, it’s hard to point to any great achievement. Partnership gave us access, but not a lot of influence.

Hardiman (2006: 348) recognises these limitations and, crucially, says of social partnership ‘the origin of the process is political and the ultimate decisions in “flexible network governance” rest with government. … Control over decision making about what government defines as its core political issues relating to its electoral programme, and the budgetary allocation to support them, remains vested in government’. In effect the government retains overall power and control in social partnership negotiations and uses its position to advance policy development which meets its priorities or hinder that which does not.

Economic crisis, social partnership and the impact on social policyToC

The profligate comment, ‘if I have it I’ll spend it’, made famous by then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, summed up the period of the Celtic Tiger and the Irish government’s approach to economic and social management under Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. As it now turns out McCreevy (and his successor Brian Cowen) may have had it to spend at the time but ratcheted up expectations for future public spending which clearly could not be sustained, based as they were on a property bubble. The speed of the fall-out for social spending from the decadence of a spendthrift government, banking sector and property elites has been spectacular. Within eighteen months, four revenue-saving budgets, the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (2009), and the introduction of the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA) have caused serious concern for the providers of public as well as voluntary and community services across all sectors of the community, as funding sources diminish dramatically. The consequences of these funding reversals inevitably cause suffering and great anxiety for large sections of the population despite the government’s declared commitment to fairness. In a statement to the Dáil on the 7 April 2009, while introducing his third budget in six months the Minister for Finance stated

Fairness must be the cornerstone of all our efforts to achieve economic renewal. Everyone wants fairness but there is less agreement about what it means. For many, it means the next person should pay. But the reality is everyone must give according to their means. Those who have most must give most. … Part of the gap between spending and revenues, derives from structural problems in the public finances. We must take firm actions to eliminate these problems within a reasonable period of time. … Our approach is rooted in a determination to control our own destiny. …The problem is our expenditure base is too high and our revenue base is too low. If we fail, refuse or neglect to address this structural problem we will condemn our generation and the next to the folly of excessive borrowing (Lenihan, 2009).

Decisions made by government since October 2008 suggests its policy is directed at following a particular approach which does not provide for equity among the population. The state abolished or emasculated government agencies which were established to support and provide recourse to those experiencing disadvantage, inequality and discrimination at a very early stage of the process of retrenchment (Zappone and Farrell, 2009). There has been a blanket recruitment ban on public sector workers who provide education, health and welfare services, without any assessment of the social impact of these cuts. In the 2010 Budget, cuts were made to wages of lower paid civil and public servants, and in social welfare payments for those who are already recognised to be at risk of poverty. Cuts in funding for the community sector where marginalised groups are provided with a range of low cost supports, often lifelines to the world outside of their homes, show little concern for even the basic need of interpersonal contact let alone fairness for some of the most vulnerable people in Ireland (SIPTU, 2009).

In current circumstances the priority of government is to reduce public expenditure (Lenihan, 2009). All other issues are, according to this line of thinking, just a distraction from what is deemed to be the core problem, excessive public expenditure. If this is solved, it will supposedly bring about gains for all in society. However, the historical evidence does not support this contention. In the face of a fiscal crisis in 1923, Ernest Blythe introduced the budget for that year using language and an approach similar to Minister Lenihan, as he cut old age pension payments, froze recruitment to the public sector and cut teachers’ pay. Suggestions that tackling public expenditure in this manner would bring such gains for all in society was not true (Lee, 1989), nor was it true in the aftermath of the 1980s crisis, for ‘in the midst of the Celtic Tiger, there were more people with an income level below the poverty line than there had been in the late 1980s, a time of recession’ (Ferriter, 2005: 703). This priority of reducing public expenditure was set by government and decisions were taken without consultation with the social partners, although employers did not have a problem with such a course of action (Allen, 2009). The fact that budgetary decisions brought about as a result of the fallout from the recession was not a new departure. A closer examination of government policy throughout the partnership process suggests that government made a number of decisions unilaterally which were to have a considerable impact on a range of policy areas from the beginning of the process (Connolly, 2007; Hardiman, 2000). Connolly (2007: 38) argues that the institutionalised nature of social partnership and the policy paradigm established at the outset of the partnership process ‘determined the way in which economic and social policy was subsequently considered’. The partnership process was led by government and met its priorities; government programmes and budgets set the context for social partnership agreements not the other way round. ‘The budget also reflected the government’s programme and the commitments it had made in the election; it was not a result of negotiations with the social partners’ (ibid.: 15). Hardiman (2000) points to a number of examples of how this consultative process was ignored when key decisions on taxation were taken during the 1990s, such as individualisation of the taxation system and the tax amnesty of 1993 amongst others.

Scholars, as well as politicians from the opposition and government’s own benches, have queried the level of political accountability of government through the partnership years and some have questioned the democratic deficit generated by the model. Ó Cinnéide (1998) was one of the academics to ask about the democratic nature of decision-making in the partnership model. He believed that it ignored parliamentary democracy, as government side-stepped the houses of the Oireachtas in favour of negotiation with non-elected interest groups. Politicians from both sides of the Dáil also pointed to what they perceived as a diminution of their role in policy making which was given over to the social partners (Ó Broin, 2009). There is of course an alternative argument that democracy is better served through civil society participatory democracy of the sort social partnership offers. The argument goes that ‘civil society organisations are intrinsically more dynamic, innovative and efficient than state organisations’ and thus form ‘the basis for new models of democracy and state organisation’ (Adshead et al., 2008: 21). There are undoubted problems with the limited nature of parliamentary democracy but the offering of the alternative, social partnership, as a more profound form of civic society engagement is not without its drawbacks. The current economic crisis highlights a number of flaws that were evident in the partnership approach to social policy. These are:

Government expenditure through the period of the boom, particularly the latter period, was based substantially on taxation from property related activities – stamp duty, capital gains tax, value added tax and income tax from workers in the building industry (Cooper, 2009). At the same time during the boom income tax was reduced, as a proportion of income, and the opportunity to revise and broaden the tax base was not taken up. In fact, throughout the period there were many opportunities provided by government policy for those with surplus wealth to avoid paying tax as various incentives facilitated the reduction of tax bills, and many of these incentives were property related (Allen, 2009; Cooper, 2009). Public expenditure increased as wages for public servants moved upwards, new or expanded public services were introduced, and, increased payments across a range of income support programmes also added to the state’s expenditure. However, it still remains lowest of the EU15 as a proportion of GDP and one of the lower in terms of GNI (Nolan, 2009). There are also examples of failures of public spending controls which have become associated with the profligacy of government during this period, such as the e-voting machine debacle. Other policy choices including the Special Savings Incentive Accounts scheme and the questionable decentralisation of public services were enormously costly for the state. Following each election, programmes for government were established and social partnership agreements were entered into on a triennial basis yet many of the decisions by government were taken outside of these structures and were in response to electoral priorities rather than a coherent policy path (Leahy, 2009; O’Toole, 2009).

According to Leahy (2009: xi) in his book on Fianna Fáil during the Bertie Ahern years the government ‘never articulated a vision’ of what their economic and political successes should generate. It is not surprising then that the social partners did not have a coherent or shared view of the social and economic policy objectives to which it was committed and as time went on ‘this lack of shared perspectives between business and unions may make the current policy paradigm harder to sustain’ (Smith, 2005: 183). On one side, trade unions emphasised the importance of ‘social justice’ while business saw ‘competitiveness’ as the priority. The government’s perspective on this paradigm tended to reflect that of business rather than unions. Smith (ibid.: 173) says that ‘the two are not treated equally. For it is not justice but economic competitiveness that is seen as a [quoting Taoiseach Bertie Ahern] “guiding principle of economic and social policy”’. Progressing priorities in the social sphere, as the C and V sector found out, was to a large degree dependent on government being ‘already sympathetic to their position’ (Hardiman, 2006: 362). Policy development was piecemeal and ad hoc, with a lack of continuity from one partnership agreement to another. The three major policy initiatives of substance for social policy – social partnership agreements, National Development Plans and National Anti Poverty Strategies – were at times operating at cross purposes, and propositions which were of importance in one initiative were often not referred to in the other two initiatives (for an example of this in relation to refugees and asylum seekers see SONAS DP 2005, Appendix 7). There is of course a difference in the broad language of promise and at times even idealism, which permeated all of these policy strategies, and the actual implementation of the different strategies. This failure to follow through and complete proposed strategies was financially expensive, disappointing for those who had a vision of the benefits of coherent social policies, and damaging for those who were to be the beneficiaries of these promised policies. A number of very important strategies were developed as a result of the partnership model. Two examples of these include the 2001 National Health Strategy – Quality and Fairness – a health system for you and The National Children’s Strategy – Our future their lives in 2000, both of which have yet to achieve their limited potential despite the fanfares and promise which surrounded their initial launches. Burke (2009: 43; see also Burke, this issue) writing on the health strategy says

Eight years after its publication, outcomes are still poorer for those who have to wait longer for what can be life-saving health care. … Private patients are privileged over public patients. … There has been a dearth of action to promote fairer access for public patients in the health system. No review of progress made in the strategy has been published since 2003. The illusive, much assured primary health care system is not yet in place. The welcomed mental health policy, A Vision for Change, remains largely unimplemented.

The National Children’s Strategy, published in 2000, has made progress but yet is still the focus of criticism for its lack of implementation in a number of key areas such as child poverty, the protection of children from abuse, and lack of political leadership to ensure full implementation of the strategy (National Children’s Advisory Council, 2006). It has not succeeded in improving the fragmentation of policy and service provision of children’s services and furthermore ‘(t)here has also been a failure to take the necessary measures to translate into reality the commitment to hear children’s voices’ (Kilkelly, 2007: 94). The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006) criticises the state for not reviewing the strategy, for not setting time frames for achieving the goals of the strategy and for not providing specific budget allocations for its implementation.

A significant sentence in the first National Anti Poverty Strategy (NAPS) (Government of Ireland, 1997: 8) states ‘addressing poverty involves tackling the deep-seated underlying structural inequalities that create and perpetuate it’. This statement was never repeated in subsequent NAPS; perhaps it was an aberration or a sop to the Labour Party and Democratic Left, the two smaller parties of the left which made up the Rainbow Government (1994-1997) that introduced the first anti-poverty strategy. Whatever its intention this statement acknowledges a certain belief about the nature of poverty in Irish society which was not to be repeated and points to a significant problem with partnership approaches. The dominant government of the past two decades, primarily a Fianna Fáil led coalition with the economically liberal leaning Progressive Democrats, was never committed to such fundamental change in Irish society, at least not in that direction. Inequalities continue, as Nolan (2009: 506) argues, ‘Ireland has a relatively high level of income inequality, which has been rather stable over time and reflects institutional legacies and choices made in the past’. The partnership approach continued to place a value on social policy issues by their inclusion in successive agreements even though for much of the time the philosophy of government and employers was at odds with the trade unions and the C&V pillar.

The final flaw in the social partnership arrangement, for social policy, was the lack of a cogent voice to challenge the direction of the policy agenda. This occurred as a result of the co-option into the process of all of the potentially dissenting voices, and the political parties outside of the process did not present a policy approach that could be described as fundamentally different from the government line (Leahy, 2009). Allen (2000, 2009) and Kirby (2002) believe that the state used social partnership to co-opt those who might have voiced dissent. This is also a theme which Meade (2005) refers to in her analysis of the conflicted role of the community sector in social partnership. She says that many in the sector expressed the view that the opportunity for dissent had been neutered because of their co-option into this new form of governance. One of the major outcomes from the Irish partnership approach, in common with the general trend of this form of governance throughout the world, is the move towards the depoliticisation of critical opposition through co-option of civil society groups (Lavalette and Ferguson, 2007; see also Murphy, 2009). Nonetheless, the attraction to sup at the table of governance is a very strong one even if the potential to influence is negligible.


The discussion thus far has attempted to explore the relationship between the state and two supporting power blocs – the Catholic Church and the social partners – with particular emphasis on the state’s relationship with social partners and the impact of that relationship on social policy. In enunciating this storyline it is important to record that it is not possible to characterise the role of the Catholic Church and that of the social partners as equals in their respective relationship with the state. The Catholic Church has had a much more profound influence on the state over a far longer period than the groups that have made up social partnership. It is worth being reminded of Inglis’s (1998: 77) observation that ‘the history of the relationship between Church and state in modern Ireland has been characterised … by peaceful coexistence, each maintaining the power of the other’. The same cannot be said of the social partnership relationship. It is clear that the state maintained the power of social partnership rather than the state and social partnership maintaining the power of each other. The Irish government in 1987 needed the social partners to join it in facing the enormous economic and social challenges the state was confronted with, and the social partners were fully aware of the extent of that crisis which was also impacting on them (Smith, 2005). Social partnership did give legitimacy to and bolster the power of the state, but it was not an embedded and symbiotic relationship between the two based on the more equal terms which characterised the relationship between Catholic Church and state for many decades. Nevertheless, although founded and maintained on very different levels of engagement with two inherently distinct power blocs the result was a commanding state which gained a great deal of legitimacy in its policy approach from the support of these two powerful groups.

The consequence for social policy from this form of ‘shared’ governance over the past twenty three years has been a consensus approach which places economic policy to the forefront. For example, Partnership 2000 firmly establishes that principle when it declares ‘the competitiveness of the Irish economy is a pre-condition for the pursuit of all other economic and social goals’ (Government of Ireland, 1996: 37). Government has also accepted the version of a developmental model of welfare, as outlined by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) – the long established agency of tri-partism, in The Developmental Welfare State (NESC, 2005). The NESC (2005) acknowledges the ‘deepening dualism’ that has emerged in Irish welfare provision but there is nothing in the NESC model of a hybrid welfare state to suggest that the structural inequalities in Irish economic and social life will be addressed. The social dimension of people’s lives are an adjunct to the economic, as the NESC document is replete with references to the links between the attendant social and the dominant economic. Economic competitiveness is central to government policy in a competitive globalised world economy and the Irish government appears willing to eschew other principles in attaining that goal. Throughout the boom period some persistent social policy problems, poverty and poor health services to name but two of the more intransigent, were not successfully addressed although they were placed high on the political and social partnership agendas.

Since 1922 the cause of Irish social policy has been inextricably linked to the relationship of the state to significant internal power blocs, based on ‘a strong disposition for pragmatic governance’ (Adshead, 2008: 72). For much of the life of the state social policy was identified with the ethos of a dominant Catholic Church and more recently with an ultimately unfulfilling social partnership experience. What difference will the end of partnership make to social policy in this time of recession? Social partnership did temper the worst excesses of the government economic model during the boom period, but this was when government had substantial finances at its disposal. These finances are no longer available, social partnership as we knew it is ended, and the state is without an internal legitimising power bloc to support it for the first time in its history. In crisis, the government has turned to powerful external institutions for its legitimacy – the international markets, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the debt ratings agencies, the international money lenders, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the International Monetary Fund. The government’s legitimising discourse is now formulated around how the world sees Ireland and its economic crisis, and how the Irish state should respond to this crisis. In the recent past the state used the discourse of social partnership to pursue its policies. That language has been replaced by the language of external pressure, where instead of meeting the demands of social partnership on the state’s terms, it must now meet the more stringent demands of a plethora of international institutions on their terms. In these circumstances social policy is certainly not a priority, except where it can offer savings in public expenditure. So, what is new?

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