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4 September 2003 Edition

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There can be no partnership between the unequal

JUSTIN MORAN argues that it is time to scrap a Partnership process that has served only to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in Irish society.

Since 1987, the Social Partnership process has increasingly dominated Irish social and economic decision making circles. The latest of the six Partnership agreements, Sustaining Progress, is now widely expected to be the last, as the inherent contradictions of Partnership are increasingly exposed.

The process is made up of four social partners, the employers, the trade unions, the farming and agriculture community and since 1996, the community and voluntary sector. The government plays the role of 'honest broker', while in practice typically deferring to the wishes of the employers, whose chief representative at the negotiations is IBEC, and their political wing, the Progressive Democrats.

Social Partnership has failed Irish workers; it has failed the poor and the disadvantaged in Irish society The theory of Social Partnership is that while the various social partners have their own agendas and priorities, they also have enough in common to compromise and form these deals for the good of the country. Successive governments have repeated as dogma the belief that Social Partnership has been a major contributing factor to the growth of the Irish economy, the Celtic Tiger in particular.

But economic growth in and of itself is not necessarily as positive a thing as it is portrayed. Writing at the beginning of the last century, James Connolly wrote: "Prosperity such as they speak of is purely capitalistic prosperity - that is to say, prosperity gauged merely by the volume of wealth produced, and entirely ignoring the manner in which the wealth is distributed amongst the workers who produce it."

In other words, if the economy is growing but the workers and poor are not benefiting from it, and might even be worse off, can we truly claim that economic growth is benefiting the people?

Taking a look back at the changes in Irish society in the 16 years since the Partnership process began, we can see that the benefits have not always been apparent to large sections of Irish society. In 1987, when the first Partnership deal was signed, 6.2% of households were below 40% of average disposable income (the 40% relative income poverty line). In 2000, after 13 years of Partnership, this had increased to almost 12%. In 1987, 16.3% of households were below 50% of average income; by 2000 this had increased to 26%.

In terms of income distribution, Ireland is one of the most unequal countries in the EU and OECD, now second only to the United States, and these inequalities have been worsening over the period of Partnership.

Is this because people aren't working hard enough? Is it because as a nation the Irish people are lazy?

On the contrary, during the 1990s output per head almost doubled, while at the same time, between 1985 and 1999, unit labour costs fell by about 20%. Put more simply, since the start of the Partnership process, Irish workers have massively increased their productivity while wages have, in real terms, declined.

So if we're producing more, working harder and getting a smaller share of the wealth we create, where's the money going?

Since 1987, the proportion of the national income that is wages has decreased, from 75% to 62%. Correspondingly, the proportion of national income that is profit has increased, from 25% to 38%. When you take into account the fact that the number of people in work has risen over the period of Partnership, the statistics are even more staggering. Internationally, Ireland experienced the largest increase in profit share among European Union (EU) members, Japan and the United States.

We're working harder, but other people, often foreign investors, who take their money out of the country, are reaping the rewards. Since the Fianna Fáil/PD coalition came to power, literally billions of euros have been spent in tax breaks to the rich and to big business. Almost §350 million was cut from Corporation Tax in the last Budget, enough money to double the investment in primary and secondary schools.

After 16 years of Partnership, we still have a health service in crisis, with a two-tier system supported by the tax payer. Access to third level education is still an impossibility for a huge section of Irish society and thousands of children are going to primary schools that have been admitted by the government to be unsafe. In a school in Limerick over the summer, a portion of the roof collapsed on two students. Every day, parents are obliged to send their children to an unsafe environment, and teachers are obliged to teach in it. And they claim the Partnership process has brought benefits?

The government funds its tax breaks for the rich with cutbacks in Community Employment schemes; broken promises on Child Benefit; the introduction of double taxation like the Bin Charges and through stealth taxes; laying off 5,000 public sector workers; increases in the capitation fee for university and a host of other measures targeted at the most vulnerable sections of Irish society.

Key to the sustainability of the Partnership process has been the support of the leadership of the trade union movement and the Labour Party. They argue that by being in the Partnership process they can affect government policy to the benefit of workers. Strange then, that over the years of the Partnership process we have seen the introduction of the two most virulently anti-trade union pieces of legislation since the foundation of the state, the Industrial Relations Act, 1990 and the Amendment Act, 2001.

This legislation has hamstrung the development of trade unions by putting restrictions on strike action, secondary disputes, ballots and union recognition. Despite repeated assurances from the leadership of the trade union movement, not only has there been no legislation obliging companies to recognise unions in the workplace, what protection they had has been eroded. Small wonder then, that the proportion of workers, particularly private sector employees, in unions is in serious decline.

And that private sector is growing because, despite the opposition of the trade union movement, Partnership has seen a massive increase in attempted and successful privatisations of public services. Public utilities such as the telecommunications system, electricity, and water supplies have been or are due to be privatised. These utilities have been built over decades using public money - using the wealth of the people created by the people. They belong to the people. Right now, Minister Seamus Brennan is proposed to break up CIE and part-privatise the Dublin public transport system. It is past time for trade unions to fight back.

And it is past time for Sinn Féin to take an aggressive and principled stand against Social Partnership. While the party has opposed every one of the six Partnership deals, it has failed to take a stand against the process. Some in the party argue that while the deals that have come out of the Partnership process are uniformly bad, the theory of a deal between the various social partners is a good one. The Community and Voluntary sector, however, while new to the Partnership process, is beginning to see it for what it is, and a number of groups in that sector opposed the last deal, many seeing it as an attempt to institutionalise their people. Sinn Féin should be leading on this issue, providing coherent arguments against the continuation of the Partnership system.

A careful analysis from an Irish republican perspective exposes the truth at the core of the Partnership process; that it is about maximising profit and exploiting labour. Far from delivering a more just society, this process has in fact created wider divisions than ever before in Irish society. The gap between rich and poor has become a yawning gulf. Our health and social services are in continual crisis. The quality of life has deteriorated while the cost of living has soared.

Social Partnership has failed Irish workers; it has failed the poor and the disadvantaged in Irish society. It is little more than tinkering around the edges of the system when the sad truth is that under capitalism, inequality, poverty and disadvantage are inevitable, no matter what so-called Partnership agreement is in place. As Plato said, 'There can be no partnership between the unequal.'

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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