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10 November 2005 Edition

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Social Partnership - Is a different model possible?

An alternative social vision

Sinn Féin is holding a key conference on Social Partnership in Dublin on 19 November. An Phoblacht spoke to the party's Employment spokesperson

Arthur Morgan TD about the conference which he will address along with Sinn Féin General Secretary Mitchel McLaughlin and prominent trade unions leaders.

An Phoblacht: Briefly for those who may not know, what exactly is Social Partnership?

Arthur Morgan: Social Partnership has been in place in the 26 Counties since 1987. It is a process where government, employers, trade unions, farmers and the community and voluntary sector negotiate economic and social agreements for a specific timeframe. It involves agreement on issues such as industrial relations, pay determination and general economic and social policies. Its core objective has been and remains economic growth. It has paid lip service to social and economic issues such as housing, childcare and addressing social exclusion.

Why is Sinn Féin holding a conference on Social Partnership?

The theme of the conference is: Is Sinn Féin support for Social Partnership Possible? and we will discuss a policy discussion document on this theme. Sinn Féin has opposed the Social Partnership process as it has been implemented in this state. Many of our criticisms have borne fruit and there is at present a strong reaction against Social Partnership from within the unions.

Sinn Féin always argued that the current process was not in the interest of workers and was not designed to deliver for the disadvantaged and the low paid. The policy discussion document examines the question of whether it is possible to construct a different model of Social Partnership. It asks questions such as whether Sinn Féin support for Social Partnership possible at all? Is it possible to have a different type of Social Partnership? How should Sinn Féin approach this issue if in government? Would we seek to abolish Social Partnership altogether or retain it in an altered form?

What are the major criticisms of the Social Partnership process?

The main criticisms of the process are that during the period since its introduction the state has experienced persistent and increasing inequality while the unions have been pacified. Social Partnership was never really intended to create a fair society, but rather to co-opt the leadership of the marginalised and dampen down opposition from those who would otherwise present a serious challenge to the status quo. There is now considerable evidence that this has been the result of the years of Social Partnership.

You mention the pacification of the Trade Union Movement. How exactly have the years of Social Partnership impacted on the Trade Union Movement?

For a start, during the Partnership years trade union membership as a proportion of the workforce has seriously declined. In 1990 60% of workers were members of trade unions. By 2002 the numbers had fallen to 35.6%. Many view Social Partnership as a key factor in this development.

Also one of the most startling facts is that despite the engagement which the unions have participated in through the Social Partnership process, employer hostility to trade unions is actually increasing.

The future of the Social Partnership process appears increasingly uncertain?

Nearly 20 years into the process workers are increasingly questioning what the process has delivered for them. The treatment of workers at Irish Ferries and An Post raises serious questions about its value. When pensioners at An Post are being denied increases granted them under the last agreement it creates a lot of anger from workers who see that employers have pocketed all the benefits of the process and are unwilling to play their part. The low paid and workers in general are seeing little point in them remaining involved in the process which is not underpinned by any objective to resolve the issues affecting them.

In terms of an alternative vision for partnership what is Sinn Féin discussing at the conference?

The draft discussion document sets out Sinn Féin's opposition to the ideology which created and underlies Social Partnership at present and examines whether it is possible to develop a new Social Partnership underpinned by a different ideology and driven by a different social vision.

We are looking at how a process involving unions, employers and the community and voluntary sector can be used to further a vision based on the redistribution of wealth. I think this is an interesting discussion for a party whose core objectives include creating genuine participatory democracy and bringing about a fair distribution of wealth. The discussion document puts forward creative and critical thinking on the issue of Social Partnership and I hope that people attend the conference and participate in what should be a good discussion.

The basis of the discussion will be around whether there can be a new form of Social Partnership that would benefit the most marginalised and that would be underpinned by a primary objective of addressing the plight of the low paid and the excluded, by working to bringing about equal distribution. If we can have a new form of discussion, agreement or pact based on these objectives

Are you expecting a large turn out at the conference?

Yes we are. Many members of Sinn Féin are very active in the Trade Union Movement and are interested in debating these issues. Also a number of prominent trade unions leaders will be giving their perspectives on the advantages and disadvantages of the process for workers. I think the conference will be both informative and thought provoking.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

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