What follows is an interview I conducted recently with David Begg, General Secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU).
What is your view of the current economic environment – are you optimistic or pessimistic for Ireland? Is there light at the end of the tunnel, or can we make any such judgement at the moment?
I think it’s the latter. I think that circumstances are very fraught at the present time. Ireland being a small open economy, we depend hugely on trade, and the international trade situation remains very bad. I saw recently that Japanese exports have reduced by 47.8 per cent, which is extraordinary and illustrates the problems we face globally. In a way we have done better than might have been expected; the last Economic and Social Research Institute commentary had revised the prospects of our own export performance upwards a little bit, which in the circumstances of the world trade environment is really very good. And regardless of what people say, our competitive position really can’t be all that bad if we are still able to achieve outcomes of that kind. But nevertheless, if you associate that with the kind of restructuring that has taken place within the economy with the virtual collapse of the construction industry and serious problems in the financial sector, it is not easy to take huge consolation from that.
There will really have to be a reconfiguration of the Irish economy. How to do that right now, with global trade so depressed, is the question we have to address. We can see stock markets rising a little, and mergers and acquisitions beginning again; but when the government stimulus packages that have been introduced really everywhere except here come to an end, will that emerging recovery end as well? There is also the question of the re-balancing of the trading relationship between China and the rest of the world, but that is also complex because we will be asking the wage slaves of the world to become the consumers of the world, and that cannot happen overnight, not least because their currency will have to strengthen, which will hit their exports.
Some commentators are suggesting now that once all these issues have been resolved we will be able to get back to where we were before, but that is not realistic.
In some ways you might wonder whether we would want to get back to where we were.
I agree, because where we were just wasn’t sustainable. But it took us a long time to realise that. We followed a public policy of growth almost for its own sake, regardless of whether it was ultimately sustainable. I always felt that we should have taken a more deliberate position of optimising the growth that we wanted to achieve, and wondered whether if we had done that we would now be much better off.
How is all this affecting the trade union movement right now? Are you concerned about the future?
We are, in the sense that every factory closure means a loss of trade union membership. Strangely enough, though, our density [the proportion of the labour force organised in trade unions] will probably increase. For the last ten years we were always told that while there might be growth in trade union membership, density was decreasing. Paradoxically, on the way down trade union density probably won’t decrease, so we’ll have increased density but a lower number of members. But you won’t see any headlines in the papers that union density has increased.
Looking at education from the perspective of the trade union movement, do you believe that as a country we have sufficiently prioritised it?
I think the answer to that question requires us to look back to about 1992. At that time the National Economic and Social Council commissioned Professor Lars Mjøset from Norway to have a look at Ireland and consider why we were not doing as well as the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and one of his main conclusions was that Ireland lacked a national system of innovation, and part of that, I suppose, is a failure to focus properly on education. His report probably never quite got the attention it deserved, perhaps partly because shortly afterwards the economy began to take off, so people thought that our model was actually working and nothing needed to be done. Apart from some start-ups in the ICT sector, we are really hopelessly dependent on international investment, and if we are ever to be really sustainable we need to address that; the mobility of investment is such that our policy of simply offering low taxes won’t do any more. It means we don’t have adequate resources to put into health and education.
So it seems to me that if we want to promote indigenous industry we will need to invest properly in those areas that allow this to happen, one of which must be education. There’s a lot of talk about the knowledge economy, and that’s fine, but in practice we are not delivering that. So for me investment in education is a crucial part of our future which we neglect at our peril.
In some ways we haven’t done too badly, in that our third level graduate output is comparable to the best in Europe, though maybe deficient in terms of PhD numbers. But our class sizes across education are the largest in Europe, and pre-school education doesn’t really exist.
When we consider investment in higher education, the question is now asked as to who should be making that investment: just the state, or also the students. Do you have a view on this?
It is quite a difficult question. If the student makes a contribution, the real fear is that there would be a deterrent for people from lower socio-economic backgrounds getting into higher education, more than the burden that might be placed on graduates later on. Personally, I believe in a model of society, which is in fact close to the Nordic model, in which everyone has an equal opportunity through the education system, and this should be paid from taxation. I believe that there is equity in funding education through a progressive tax system. But we are very polarised about these questions in Ireland, in part because social democracy has never taken hold here.
If we look at the way in which the higher education system might develop, should there be more interaction (beyond industrial relations issues) between universities and the trade union movement?
Probably there should be more than there is. We do have some links. For example, we collaborate on a Bachelor of Business Studies degree in UCD, we have collaborated with DCU in relation to Finance courses, and so on. But these links are not very structured. Perhaps over the past ten years or so there has been this evolution where the relationship between business and the universities has been pursued and developed and people in trade unions have always been a little concerned about that, because we feared it might compromise Newman’s vision of a university as requiring independence of thought. Maybe our side has not actively pursued a relationship, but then again maybe the universities were not particularly interested either.
I would say that we could be in changed circumstances now, because of the changing nature of our society and the growth of unemployment. We need to help people back into earning a living through second chance education. This need not just be through technical courses, but could be through courses in the humanities. I would love to see the universities reaching out to us to see if we can work together in this. This would also be very beneficial for the universities themselves.