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Deliberation for Participatory Democrats: Lessons from Social Partnership in Ireland

Deiric Ó Broin*


There is a well-established literature on the case for both participatory and deliberative democracy, but very little discussion of the role of representatives within such democracies or the processes by which they can develop a more accountable relationship with participatory publics. Participatory and deliberative democracy have too often been identified with direct democracy rather than with forms of representative democracy in which representatives have a stronger and more dialogical relationship with their constituents. In addition, very little theoretical research has been informed by the experience of community representatives in deliberative settings. Yet the experience of the community sector in the Irish system of social partnership has a significant contribution to make to the development of processes of accountability and representation in a more deliberative democracy. While acknowledging that the sector cannot single-handedly redress inequalities in political and economic power that are rooted in the underlying structures of society, evidence shows that the community sector’s development of mechanisms to enable and facilitate a more accountable and dialogical relationship with its representatives and itself offers a great deal to the broader objective of developing a feasible model of deliberative democracy.


It is generally accepted that any democratic system should involve some degree of citizen participation. What is up for debate is the degree of participation. At one extreme is virtual exclusion as posited by Schumpeter:

voters must understand that, once they elect an individual, political action is his business not theirs. This means that they must refrain from instructing him what he is to do (Schumpeter 1942, 295).

At the other end of the spectrum is the idea of citizen participation at every stage of deliberation of every decision. While this is an exaggerated position, the point stands that any democratic system worthy of the title involves some degree of citizen participation. Conversely, any proposed participatory democratic model will of necessity involve some degree of representation, for example, the participatory systems of Integrated Local Development Companies and Urban Partnerships in Ireland. This is a key point. The traditional contrast between liberal representative democracy and participatory democracy is false. The key issue is the balance of representation and direct participation in an appropriate system. In particular, the important question for participatory democrats to ask is “what will be different about deliberation in a participatory democracy?”

In this context it is important to note the relevance, for many democrats, of the representativeness of the particular deliberative forum. This paper shares Manin’s contention that equal participation in deliberative processes confers legitimacy (1987: 359). As such it is contended that an appropriate model of representation is crucial to embedding and sustaining meaningful deliberation.

The paper begins with a brief discussion of the importance of appropriate models of representation, followed by a short overview of the Irish social partnership process, and discusses issues arising from the Irish community sector’s involvement in the deliberative process.

Developing a model of representationToC

When one examines the work of theorists such as Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill, Anne Phillips, Melissa Williams, Paul Hirst, Iris Marion Young and Hanna Pitkin, it is possible to identify a number of key questions that need to be addressed. These include:

Each of these questions will be considered in turn.

What collectivities should be represented in a participatory democracy?

For the purposes of this paper, the theoretical defence of group representation put forward by Iris Young, Anne Phillips and Melissa Williams is taken for granted. This defence clearly implies that a crucial test of a system of representation is whether it secures some threshold level of representation for marginalised groups. A number of approaches have been implemented as means of increasing the presence of representatives from marginalised groups within legislative bodies by defining political constituencies around group identity. For example, race-conscious districting in the United States, reserved seats in New Zealand and Taiwan, plurality multi-member or at-large systems in the United States, intra-party quotas in Scandinavia, forms of consociational democracy in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Northern Ireland. However, many of these examples are inappropriate for particular groups and/or in specific contexts. Alternatively, proportional representation (PR) as a system has much to recommend it, in particular, forms of PR that allow voters to choose individual candidates rather than those from a party list. PR systems overcome many of the usual objections to group representation. They have the advantage of preserving individual equality “virtually perfectly” (Williams 1998, 218). In addition, PR systems also treat citizens “more equitably” (ibid.) than single seat plurality systems, since those who support minority parties or candidates are still able to achieve some measure of representation in the legislative assembly. As Guinier (1994, 96) contends the aspiration to a more inclusive model of representation seems better served in “winner-takes-only-some” than in “winner-takes-all” systems.

Despite their effectiveness, it is important to note that PR systems are not sufficient to overcome structural barriers to the representation of marginalised groups. Even under a system of proportional representation, it is still likely that some groups will be better positioned to translate those interests into electoral results than others. With the exception of PR the other models of group representation are results-oriented rather than procedural. These strategies begin with the assumption that the representation of certain groups is desirable and they directly intercede in the electoral process to guarantee the representation of these groups. The problem with such systems, and the corresponding advantage of procedural solutions, is that procedural solutions to problems of inequality are more likely to be sustainable because they leave open a greater space for citizen’s self-definition of political identities and interests. The challenge is therefore to identify electoral institutions that take care not to reproduce the structural inequalities that characterise the social position of marginalised groups but at the same time secure individuals a “full measure of freedom to define their own political identities” (Williams 1998, 221).

One way of advancing the issue is to consider the insights provided by social partnership. It is suggested that one of the reasons group representation has proved intractable in political theory is because theorists have tried to build it into the mainstream electoral processes. This paper contends that it is more helpful to incorporate it as an independent, parallel and augmentary process. For example, in the national social partnership process in Ireland, disabled people have explicit representation on various bodies in their own right, and can exercise some influence on policy-making. In most of these cases, the institutional bases for this form of representation are self-governing organisations that are resourced by the state, for example the Forum for People with Disabilities. In this context it is useful to bear in mind a warning from Murphy (2003), who notes that a lesson from the Irish experience of social partnership is that while it is often relatively straightforward to establish structures, e.g. NESC and NESF, it is important to plan for success and allow for the development of new structures to meet new needs. She reflects that it is often very difficult to make structures redundant once they become part of the policy landscape even though they may no longer be the most appropriate vehicles to meet the new challenges.

To sum up, critics of liberal democracy have criticised its exclusive use of geographical constituencies and have suggested a number of alternatives. The least radical change is the use of some form of proportional representation that has the effect of making each representative’s constituency a group of like-minded voters. But as we have also seen, proportional representation does not ensure the presence of marginalised groups in legislative bodies, leading to a range of more radical mechanisms such as quotas, majority-minority districting, separate electoral rolls, functional representation etc. These have met various obstacles, the solution to which, this paper contends, is to think of parallel structures rather than trying to build everything into a single structure. That way, some structures can be built on constituencies defined in geographical terms or, under PR systems, in terms of political affiliation, while others can use constituencies defined in terms of functional groups or the membership of marginalised groups.

To what extent should the constituents exercise control over the representative?

The presence of representatives of marginalised groups in a legislative or other assembly does not guarantee that those groups will be adequately represented and defended. This is a key issue in devising a model of representation that takes account of group inequalities: to what degree should these groups exercise control over their representatives?

As noted earlier an important strength of representatives from marginalised groups is that they share the experience, and therefore the insights, of their constituents. Williams observes that because of this “commonality” there are good reasons why citizens from marginalised groups are “likely to prefer a representative from their own ranks” (1998, 228). However, there is a legitimate concern, expressed by opponents of group representation, that a shared group identity is not, in itself, sufficient to secure effective representation. This arises because of the interest diversity of all social groups. Furthermore, representatives, once elected, become members of an elite and the activities and preoccupations of this elite are often quite removed from the concerns of any particular constituency. The fact of election itself places a distance between representative and represented and often underscores the differences that now exist between them. So there is a strong case for constructing a way for the constituents to exercise control over their representatives on a continuing basis, and not just at election times, and has led theorists and activists of a more participatory bent to favour the ‘delegate’ model of representation. On this understanding of accountability, representatives ought to stand unwaveringly by the commitments made during the election because it was the convergence of these commitments with their constituents’ needs, concerns and interests that allowed them to be elected.

On the other hand, the type of deliberation among representatives emphasised by many theorists from Burke onwards and endorsed below necessitates an openness to changing one’s judgement about an issue in the light of others’ arguments, whereas the delegate model requires the representative’s dogged and unyielding pursuit of their constituents’ instructions. Przeworski et al (1999, 30-31) outline three basic arguments against this type of ‘mandate’ or delegate representation:

Citizens choose policies that represent their interests or candidates who represent them as persons but they also want governments to be able to govern. As a result, while many citizens would prefer representatives to uphold their electoral platforms, democratic institutions contain no mechanisms enforcing adherence to mandates.

Phillips argues that it is precisely because of the inescapable if partial autonomy of representatives that the presence of marginalised groups in legislative assemblies is vital to ensure accountability. “Representatives do have autonomy, which is why it matters who those representatives are” (1995, 78). A problem with this view is that it views accountability in a very narrow way. For Phillips accountability comes down to “representatives being given binding instructions on every issue relevant to constituents” (Williams 1998, 229). In essence Phillips suggests that the shared experience of representatives and constituents can substitute for the institutional mechanisms that make representatives accountable to constituents.

Taken together, these issues present a major problem for proponents of group representation. The representation of marginalised groups cannot depend exclusively on the presence of their members in the legislative assembly because it is not possible to assume an essential identity between group members as such. Yet the mandate or delegate view of representation is not a feasible means of keeping representatives true to their groups’ interests because it is unlikely that constituencies will be defined along group lines and because representatives must have some degree of autonomy in order to function as members of a legislative assembly in which some degree of deliberation takes place. Phillips does not resolve the dilemma but concludes that “representation has to include both accountability and relative autonomy, otherwise we are reduced to mere aggregation of initial preferences and interests” (1995, 160).

As noted above, the root of this problem lies in Phillips’ tendency to identify representatives’ accountability with a strict delegate or mandate model of representation. In essence, she tends to assume that representatives’ performance of their duty depends on their strict adherence to the direct instructions of their constituents or to the policy platform they outlined during their electoral campaign. This assumption is problematic. Both Przeworski et al (1999) and Pitkin (1967) contend that neither a pure model of delegation or a pure model of trusteeship (as advocated by Burke) captures the necessary character of political representation. Williams contends that representation must account for the “agency of the represented”, which a pure trustee model does not allow for, and the “agency of the representative”, which a pure delegate or mandate model does not facilitate (1998: 230). This understanding of the representative-constituent relationship is important to developing an appropriate model of representation. Representation must include the accountability of representatives for the interests and concerns that their constituents express by electing them but also for their exercise of the power of independent judgement that inevitably attends their role as representatives. The latter component of this relationship is usually secured by two means; (a) the fact that representatives are themselves bound by the legislative decisions they make and (b) the fact that they are dependent, for re-election on constituents’ judgement that they have executed their trust well. But both of these mechanisms are rather weak constraints.

This paper suggest that what is lacking in this debate is an adequate appreciation of the potential for continuing dialogue in the periods between elections. It is suggested that the solution to the problem lies in a three-way dialogue in which representatives deliberate with (a) each other and (b) with their constituents, and (c) citizens engage in dialogue with each other. Such a dialogic model reshapes the traditional mandate-independence issue by focusing on the achievement of a deliberative agreement between representatives and their constituents. It is only when the deliberative process breaks down that constituents have to resort to removing their representatives from office.

Through what mechanisms should the constituents exercise control over the representative?

Critics of the essentialist model of group representation are correct in their claim that mere similarity does not guarantee genuine representativeness. Elections are meant to secure accountability and responsibility of representatives by appealing to their desire for re-election. While noting that contested elections are an essential part of a system of representation, they are a blunt instrument for achieving the sort of accountability a model of representation presupposes. In the model outlined here, the representative’s accountability requires mechanisms that allow movement between (a) dialogue with constituents and (b) deliberations with other representatives.

With regard to (a), the relationship between representatives and their constituents, in the situation where a representative’s judgement on an issue has changed, he/she must engage in dialogue with their constituents in outlining to them the reasons for the proposed change in his/her stance. This is the first step of an engagement that might be end up with her changing her position as proposed, reverting to her initial position, or supporting a third alternative. As Gutmann and Thompson note (2004) deliberative democrats must, at some level, accept the principle of reciprocity, i.e. I cannot expect you to entertain my reasons respectfully and with a mind open to changing your views unless I am prepared to entertain your reasons in the same spirit.

In relation to (b), i.e. the public policy arena, the representative must engage with other representatives to persuade them to “reconceive the public interest” in a way that takes account of the perspectives and interests of his/her constituents. Conversely, deliberation requires an openness on the part of the representative to revising his/her judgements in the light of other contributions to the deliberative process which of course cycles back to (a).

This approach is not without problems. Given the large size of constituencies and the dynamics of multi-seat constituencies, the model of representative-constituent dialogue may seem unrealistic. However, fora already exist for accessing the views of many marginalised groups at local level, e.g. local and city/county civic and community fora, community associations and residents’ and tenants’ associations etc. In addition, recent innovations in political life and technology render it more feasible than might have been expected. The experience of is an interesting, if necessarily limited, example of representative-constituent dialogue facilitated by advances in information and communications technology. As Dahl observes:

One of the imperative needs of democratic countries is to improve citizens’ capacities to engage intelligently in political life. In years to come older institutions will need to be enhanced by new means for civic education, political participation, information and deliberation that draw creatively on the array of technologies available in the twenty-first century. We have barely begun to think seriously about these possibilities (1998, 87).

The proposals are similar to those outlined by Benjamin Barber in Strong Democracy. They focus on the importance of soliciting citizens’ own judgements about politics within institutions that foster democratic deliberation. Unlike Barber’s model, they locate such practices within a scheme of political representation. They neither presuppose nor demand that a substantial proportion of citizens engage actively in political discourse. At the same time, because the proposals involve soliciting the participation of citizens who themselves reflect significant differences within the community, they run fewer risks of privileging those who because of the advantages they have enjoyed relative to other citizens, are more competent participants in public discussion. As Williams maintains “it is this feature that connects such mechanisms of democratic accountability directly to the aim of representing marginalised groups” (1998, 233).

Should we conceive of the work of representative bodies as interest-aggregation, the search for deliberative consensus, or some mixture of the two?

In discussing the nature of decision-making in a participatory democracy it is important to note that the way representatives make decisions is an aspect of the role representatives play in the process that links citizens to decisions regarding public policy. With regard to the manner in which decisions are taken, Young (2000) contends that a more group-focused conception of representation leads to a reconceptualisation of the ideal of decision-making as a deliberative rather than conflictual, competitive process. In the competitive model, representatives act as aggressive advocates for the interests of their constituents against the interests that compete with them. As a result, marginalised groups are virtually certain to lose the political competition. As Williams notes “they lack sufficient clout to secure their constituents’ interests” (1998, 221). In the deliberative model envisaged by Young (2000), Phillips (1995) and Williams (1998), representatives aim at reaching agreement through exchanging different perspectives on the common interest and the place of particular interests within it. It is proposed that only in such a process will the distinctive perspectives of marginalised groups have a “deeply transformative effect on the political agenda” and offer the prospect of redesigning public policies in ways that will have the long term effect of “ameliorating group-structured inequality” (Williams 1998, 221). Williams suggests that the mere presence of representatives of marginalised groups can have its most profound influence on public policy only if representatives from relatively privileged groups are open to reconceiving the public interest in response to the light such perspectives shed on social and political problems.

However, the deliberative model is extremely demanding. Not only does it require representatives to take a much broader view of the public interest by recognising the place of marginalised groups within the ‘public’ but it also requires that they develop the capacity to listen in a spirit of impartiality to points of view that may be starkly alien to them. Consequently, critics argue that the model runs the risk of being naively utopian. As Phillips argues “deliberative democrats sometimes seem to inhabit a world of romanticised dreams” (1995, 146).

Ireland’s experience of social partnership confirms this as a problem. The social partnership process is often claimed to be established on principles of deliberative democracy, but in fact representatives of marginalised social groups find it difficult to make headway. This reflects the argument regarding naivete made by Young (2001: 675) “the deliberative democrat who thinks power can be bracketed by the soft tones of the seminar room is naive”.

Consequently in developing a model of representation that both participatory and deliberative democrats can endorse, it is important to focus on institutional changes that will have the effect of moving representatives away from competition and towards deliberation, without the expectation that a pure form of deliberative decision-making can ever be achieved. In this vein, while aiming to increase the deliberativeness of the main legislative assembly, it is important to examine the possibility of developing deliberative processes within existing and proposed components of the public policy decision-making structures. This suggestion is clearly complementary to the point made above that such parallel structures provide an appropriate location for the representation of marginalised groups.

Social partnership in IrelandToC

Garvey observes that social partnership is “essentially a space in which the state interacts in a structured way with representatives of civil society” in a deliberative “problem-solving process” that allows some “participants to influence policy making” (2009: 252).

In reviewing the social partnership process in Ireland, it is not the intention to grant it the status of a fully worked through theoretical perspective on representation but rather to examine how it has influenced public discourse and affected the role and nature of interest representation and deliberation in Ireland. At its most basic, social partnership is a “mechanism for reaching a national agreement between the Irish government and the social partners: employers, trade unions, farmers and community and voluntary groups. Pay, tax and social welfare as well as other economic and social concerns are currently agreed roughly every three years”. O’Donnell credits the institutions of social partnership with a central role in “mediating Ireland’s transformation from economic laggard to economic star through aligning state strategy with economic and social interests” (Kirby 2002a, 5). In a report written for the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development on social partnership and social innovation, Charles Sabel writes that “the Irish effort to foster development and welfare through new forms of public and private local co-ordination … blurs the distinction between public and private, national and local, and representative and participative democracy” (1996, 9).

Despite Sabel’s rhetorical flourishes, the model of social partnership in Ireland has almost prosaic origins. It was born in the depths of economic and social crisis. Inflation, wage and price spirals, industrial unrest, unemployment, emigration, poverty and a perceived massive government debt in the early to mid-1980s led Ireland to be viewed by many as an “economic basket case”. A number of the most powerful stakeholders concluded, largely through a series of deliberative processes, the NESC, that only a competitiveness-based strategy could enable the economic and social survival of a small open economy. This consensus was arrived at through the tripartite consultative body, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC). The publication of “Strategy for Recovery” published by NESC in 1986 represented a key element of this process. In 1987 a minority Fianna Fáil administration accepted the terms of the NESC report and convened tripartite talks that led to the first agreement, the Programme for National Recovery (PNR). The negotiation of the following three agreements the Programme for Economic and Social Progress (PESP), The Programme for Competitiveness and Work (PCW), and Partnership 2000 (P2000) broadened the range of issues for discussion. The fifth programme, Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF), saw representation extended to a range of groups representing the community and voluntary sector while the negotiation of the sixth programme, Sustaining Progress, saw the majority of groups from that sector walk out of the negotiations.

In assessing the relevance of deliberative processes to the social partnership process on interest representation, in particular the role of those representing marginalised groups, it is important to remember that in effect only the most powerful interests are represented. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and to a more limited extent the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) controlled access to the negotiations and are reluctant to allow access to the community and voluntary pillar. Mary Murphy’s (2002) examination of the process makes very clear that the problem-solving ethos of the process left no room or inclination to challenge the status quo. The process “both developed and reflected a shared understanding” of the issues perceived to be in need of redress (Murphy 2002, 5). It appears that social and civic equity was low on the list of priorities.

In terms of examining the impact of the process on the representation of interests and particularly those of marginalised groups, It is helpful to review the analyses of the process by Mary Murphy (2002) and Seamus Ó Cinnéide (1998). Both analyses share significant features and agree on a number of important issues. Ó Cinnéide contends that social partnerships has effectively sidelined the legislature and that unelected stakeholders now exercise considerable influence in the formulation of socio-economic policy. Murphy also notes the bypassing of the legislature but, unlike Ó Cinnéide, focuses on the concentration of power in the hands of the executive, ably assisted by a dynamic cohort of civil servants. Both contentions raise matters of concern.

Ó Cinnéide contends that the social partnership process has undermined the role of the existing elected representatives, radically increased the power of the executive and hidden the lack of influence of the social partners. Ó Cinnéide (1998) powerfully articulates a cogent critique of the social partnership approach on the grounds of its creation and sustenance of a democratic deficit. He notes that the process “represents a major shift in power from elected representatives to full-time officials in the civil service and the organisations of the major interests. It is, of course, neither participative (except for a small group of activists) nor democratic in any ordinary sense of that word” (Ó Cinnéide 1998, 47). This view has been echoed by a number of TDs, most notably Roisín Shorthall TD and Noel Ahern TD. On 23rd February 2000 in a widely noted speech made as part of a wider Dáil debate on tax individualisation, Ahern stated that:

I am concerned by us becoming irrelevant. The social partners include Community Action Network, Community Workers' Co-op, Conference of Religious of Ireland, European Anti-Poverty Network, Focus Ireland, Gay and Lesbian Network, Irish Association of Older People, National Adult Literacy Agency, Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and so on. They are happy with the drift towards individualisation, which is interesting, but I would rather listen to my colleagues on all sides of the House. I do not know who some of those organisations represent – not many. Many of them are funded by various Ministers but I do not know who they represent. Many are set up just to represent themselves. Many Members were concerned with individualisation and I would much rather listen to a cross-section of Deputies who, for good or bad, have some sort of mandate and who represent those who have elected us. I am concerned that too much emphasis is being shifted away from the Dáil just because that motley crew has endorsed this – I wonder if they discussed it. The fact that it is in the partnership deal and makes them happy does not make me happy. It is a matter for debate among public representatives who have been elected by the people.

He continued, stating that “I hope that we, as elected representatives, continue to make this House relevant and discuss issues within this House rather than outside it”.

In a similar vein, on 23rd October 2002, Minister Éamon Ó Cuiv responded to a question about the funding and methods he would put in place to overcome the distrust that existed between the local development structures and the public representatives. The minister stated:

We are the only ones elected by the people and primacy must go to those who represent the people in this parliament. Any of us who deviate from that are doing a disservice to democracy.

Central to the TDs’ understanding of social partnership is that they have somehow become irrelevant to the public policy making process. Dáil Eireann, if it ever was, has ceased to be the state’s foremost deliberative forum. Supporting their perception is the widely held belief that no major policy decision will be taken unilaterally by the government without consulting the major social partners (Ó Broin 2009, 121). For example, “It is now inconceivable that major policy initiatives would be taken without some consultation with, and/or involvement of, the social partners and this is reflected at both national and local level.” (NESC 1999, 79).

Some lessons for participatory and deliberative democratsToC

First, devise an appropriate model of representation. Roberto Gargarello contends that “impartial decisions require careful deliberation among representatives of the whole society” (1998: 260). He notes that both “full representation” and “deliberation” are essential to address issues of impartiality. Research undertaken by the author suggests that with regard to the collectivities that should be represented, there are three different kinds (Ó Broin 2006).

Mechanisms that make it easier for members of socially excluded groups to be selected in type a or type b constituencies have not included. A wariness of such schemes arises from a suspicion that such claims make groups’ moral status prior to individuals’ moral status and will result in the denial of individual equality and autonomy in the name of group equality. The model proposed here is based on the notion that for many, their social and political equality is mediated by the membership of groups because of the ways in which group membership shapes their life chances and their self-esteem. However, while accepting much of the thinking behind the recent writings of Phillips, Williams and Young, this paper does not consider it appropriate to ensure group representation within type a or type b constituencies.

With regard to the features representatives should represent, this paper contends it should be a judicious mixture of interests, opinions and perspectives. In particular they should represent interests and opinions where their constituents have agreed interests and opinions, which will tend to be the case in relation to constituencies of types a and b above, and often in type c constituencies. But constituencies may sometimes make perspective more important.

In terms of the extent to which constituents should exercise control over their representatives, it is proposed that this should be based on a three-way dialogue in which representatives deliberate with (a) each other and (b) with their constituents, and (c) citizens engage in dialogue with each other. Such a dialogic model reshapes the traditional mandate-independence issue by focusing on the achievement of a deliberative agreement between representatives and their constituents. It is only when the deliberative process breaks down that constituents have to resort to removing their representatives from office.

In relation to the mechanisms through which constituents should exercise control over their representatives, the representative’s accountability requires a mechanism that allows movement between (a) dialogue with constituents and (b) deliberations with other representatives. With regard to (a), the representative must engage in dialogue with their constituents in outlining to them the reasons for the proposed change in his/her stance. This is the first step of an engagement that might be end up with her changing his/her position as proposed, reverting to the initial position, or supporting a third alternative. In relation to (b), i.e. the public policy arena, the representative must engage with other representatives to persuade them to “reconceive the public interest” in a way that takes account of the perspectives and interests of his/her constituents.

Finally, in terms of the dynamics of decision-making, it is proposed that the work of representative bodies should be a mixture of interest-aggregation and deliberation rather than straightforward interest aggregation or deliberation. It is further suggested that the legislature in Ireland is likely, for a variety of reasons, to tend towards interest-aggregation and that it is in parallel institutions such as social partnership bodies that deliberation can become more prominent.

The model of representation outlined in this paper addresses concerns arising from both procedural and substantive interpretations of equality. The model aims to preserve the idea that procedural solutions to political disputes have two major advantages: (a) they do not bias outcomes in favour of some participants over others and (b) by giving individuals an equally weighted role in influencing political outcomes, they preserve the principle of individual equality.

However, the model proposed also addresses concerns arising from a “difference-blind proceduralism” (Williams 1998, 100), especially the danger that even reformed procedures will continue to advantage already privileged groups. In essence the model proposes institutional changes that will facilitate representation for marginalised groups in deliberative processes. The difference blind view of equality articulates a noble aspiration. As noted the problems arise when it is put into practice in a society that has long been structured by inequality and marginalisation.

As stated at the outset, the aim of this paper is to draw some lessons about deliberation for participatory democrats from social partnership. Having outlined a tentative model of representation and its deliberative aspects the paper now examines the more practical lessons that both deliberative and participatory democrats can draw from social partnership.

The first relates to the representation of socially excluded groups in the process. Murphy’s contention about the balance of power within the process is important. It is clear that if a model of representation that adequately incorporates the social experiences and perspectives of socially excluded groups is to be developed, an independent and sustainable funding mechanism is necessary to ensure that such groups can be represented in a useful and constructive manner. Unfortunately the Irish state has not covered itself in glory in this area (Kirby and Murphy 2009: 143-144).

The second relates to the exercise of power within the process. There is some evidence that the process has involved traditionally excluded groups in the public policy process, but it is also clear that the power they exert within the process is very limited (Ó Broin 2009 and Gaynor 2009). This reflects to a certain extent the original conceptualisation of social partnership, since at its simplest the process was about involving those who could obstruct the future implementation of public policy. By involving these groups in the process, their options to advocate alternative positions outside of the process were severely limited. However, representatives of marginalised groups lack the power of IBEC, ICTU or the IFA. They lack the power to stall the implementation of decisions agreed during the social partnership process.

To be a success in such a deliberative process it is sometimes important to be able to halt the process by absenting oneself. This draws attention to the concept of reciprocity. A significant amount of the academic research to date suggests that reciprocity is lacking in the social partnership process, or what little reciprocity exists tends to facilitate the co-option of groups to a “shared understanding” far removed from experiences of those they represent. As Murphy and Kirby note the discussion with the social partnership process often reflects an “absence of political debate” let alone robust and engaged deliberation (2009: 151).

In addition the power to set the agenda is crucial. Murphy (2002) and Ó Broin (2009) note the power of key civil servants to set the agenda and to prevent matters being introduced by other participants. Hardiman suggests this reflects a successful aspect of the process and notes that the “strong partnership model needs a strong state” (2001: 307). This paper questions that assertion and suggests that it raises many questions about the openness of the deliberative process managed by the state.


There are lessons for participatory and deliberative democrats from the social partnership process and these include:


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