Over the past two decades, Ireland’s economic growth and social stability has been built on the framework of social partnership. Regular negotiations between the government, the employers, the trade unions and some other interest groups have produced agreements that have regulated pay but also secured developments and changes in social and economic policy. These agreements have over an extended period maintained industrial peace – the days when Ireland could have over a million working days lost in a year due to industrial action are long gone – while also producing a huge increase in national productivity, secured largely through extending the economically active workforce to sections of the population previously outside it.
Whether this framework remains fit for purpose is something we shall discover over the next while, but for now it has also placed at the heart of national development the two main bodies representing employers and trade unions: the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). And this week this blog has carried interviews with the two leading officers of both, Danny McCoy (IBEC) and David Begg (ICTU). Both men are, as I hope the interviews show, thoughtful and imaginative leaders, and both also have significant experience outside the bodies they now lead. Danny McCoy was both an academic and a much respected economist in the Economic and Social Research Institute; while David Begg was chief executive of Concern, the major international aid agency.
In the interviews, both men have raised an issue that perhaps needs to be discussed more actively: the relationship of the universities with these two organisations. The universities are members of IBEC, but perhaps not prominently so; they often have to deal with trade unions in a bargaining context, but on the other hand many of the social objectives trade unions pursue are also priorities of the higher education institutions.
So where therefore, in the overall social partnership scheme of things, do the universities fit it? Are they just organisations that, in some not always definable way, are represented at national talks without ever being prominently featured? Or could they be more active participants in their own right, setting out and defending the major educational and knowledge-based objectives that must now be part of national planning? Is it time to see the universities as active participants in this national dialogue, rather than just bystanders? Is it time that the universities themselves become much more deliberately active?