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27-07-1999 Taoiseach speaking at the Partnership 2000 Plenary meeting.

 

It is a pleasure for the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and myself to be here today with all the social partners at this Plenary meeting. I would like to welcome Inez McCormack to the meeting as the newly elected President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. I would like to wish her every success in her period in office, for which she is uniquely well suited. In the same spirit I would like to welcome Dessie Boylan, the new President of ICOS.

At the outset, we wish to record our deep appreciation to all involved in the social partner organisations and in the various Government Departments for the always positive, if sometimes difficult, role which collectively you are playing in the development of social partnership in Ireland.

A Time of Reflection

It is natural that all our thoughts are now beginning to be refocused on the prospects for a new Agreement. I accept that the negotiations themselves are likely to prove difficult - not least because, for the first time ever, we are being challenged to manage unprecedented success in a sustainable but more equitable way.

We all accept the mutually reinforcing dynamics of social partnership. Gone are the straight line rigidities and certainties of inherited and often imported doctrines or outlooks. All leaders in our society, whether in Government or otherwise, recognise fully now the interdependence between economic and social aims. Through social partnership, we have largely avoided ideological debate on this issue and focused instead on pragmatic measures to improve the welfare of the nation, through policies targeted at business, communities, family and the individual.

Since 1987, Ireland has been transformed and restructured and all steps along the way are stamped by social partnership. Government has become more transparent. The public service has opened up its relationship with the citizen. Economic performance has outstripped all expectations. Greater social inclusion is an integral part of the policy agenda. Indeed, our sense of Irishness too has changed and is now more acutely defined by our relationships with other peoples, especially in Europe, while at the same time we have learned to appreciate more fully the diverse contributions of our complex past. As a nation, we have become more tolerant of difference, more respectful of the other view, and more honest in facing up to the dark side of our history.

All these changes did not, of course, materialise overnight. Sometimes, circumstances propelled us along routes on which we might not have otherwise travelled. On other occasions, it was a question of opting for the difficult choice over easier alternatives. Whatever the motivation and the issue, it is clear, looking back now, that over the past decade or so we have emerged as a more confident and forward looking people. Perhaps, over that period, we have learnt a crucially important lesson:

evolution, rather than revolution, suits the Irish disposition.

I believe that the success of social partnership represents a powerful endorsement of that view.

At the same time, I acknowledge that differences between us do arise from time to time. It is more often the case, however, that they lie on the margins rather than on the centre ground and where differences do exist, there is invariably a shared determination to overcome them. In short, we know, understand and respect one another infinitely better now than in the pre-partnership years.

In looking back, we collectively can view with pride the impressive progress across a range of issues and concerns. Unquestionably, the most heartening achievement has been in the area of employment creation and unemployment reduction. The fall in the ILO measure of unemployment to under 100,000 tells a great human story - in terms of new found self confidence, family stability, financial certainty and community cohesion.

This is indeed a remarkable achievement - a reduction from nearly 17% in 1987 to 5.8% in the first quarter of this year and the lowest Live Register figures for June since 1983. Who could credibly have predicted this when P2000 was negotiated?

In terms of employment creation, progress if anything has been even more impressive. The numbers of Irish men and women at work have increased by half, from somewhat over 1 million in April 1987 to nearly 1.56 million in the first quarter of 1999. The year on year increase last year was a staggering 72,000 - twice the rate forecast in P2000 - and since 1993, the annual increase has averaged at about 5%. Furthermore, all indications point to a continuation of this remarkable trend, suggesting clearly that the economy, for the first time in our history, stands confidently on the threshold of full employment.

I am absolutely convinced that the scale of these achievements are due in significant measure to social partnership. The process engendered an unprecedented consistency across a range of policy areas - whether fiscal, monetary or incomes - and it capitalised on opportunities presented by an ever deepening relationship within the EU setting.

Looking Ahead - The Social Inclusion Challenge

Having said that, it is of course true that, as an economy and a society, we would act to our detriment by resting complacently on past achievements. While the products of economic growth are clearly evident throughout the country, it nevertheless remains the case that, for too many, poverty is still a grinding reality and deprivation is still a way of life. To families caught in such traps, statistics mean nothing - even if they show that the depth of poverty is moving in the right direction. Government, in co-operation with the social partners here must continue to build on the foundations in place and work towards the creation of a society where everyone will be a stakeholder.

In the presentation to be made at this meeting, implementation of Partnership 2000 is assessed with regard to unemployment, educational disadvantage, income adequacy, urban disadvantage, rural exclusion and equality. Overall, impressive advances have been made towards the aim of a more inclusive society.

A new Partnership Agreement would maximise the prospects for further inroads into deprivation, inequality and alienation, guided by the signposts of the National Anti-Poverty Strategy.

Exclusion and inequality are matters of concern to us all. Issues like affordable housing, high quality healthcare, adequately funded education, coherent childcare strategies, crime free streets, and an effective strategy on drugs go to the heart of economic, as well as social concerns. A fairer society promotes the necessary cohesion and dynamic for business investment for example, thereby enabling many other things to happen. The desires are quite simple but yet far-reaching: a decent start in life, encouragement to achieve full potential, and support in times of difficulty. These are the ideals for which we must continue to strive.

A P2000 successor therefore will have to place a strong emphasis on the social inclusion and equality agenda, building on the provisions in the National Development Plan.

Looking Ahead - The Infrastructural Challenge

No doubt, everyone here is familiar at this stage with current Government thinking on the NDP. In the round, it most certainly represents an ambitious investment platform for the next seven years. In approaching its finalisation, the Government are confident that it will bear the hallmarks of social partnership. Firstly, it builds on the shared analysis of the needs of our economy and society which we have developed in P2000. Secondly, our approach draws heavily on the consultation process, especially with the social partners. The Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and I have listened carefully to the priorities and the principles which you set out when we met some weeks ago. Without zoning in on specifics, it is clear for example, that you agree that remedying Ireland's infrastructural deficit is a national imperative. Sustaining competitiveness, promoting economic growth and building social development are all fundamentally contingent on our infrastructural capacity.

Notwithstanding the very substantial progress made in recent years, major investment is still required. The pace of change is relentless; indeed it is accelerating with each passing year. This is especially evident in the widening use of technology and in the deepening impact of globalisation. As a society, an economy, a people, we are challenged to adapt accordingly while, at the same time, to retain what is best in values we hold dear.

The Information Society revolution is now upon us. Unlike any other, this revolution has the capacity to be a truly inclusive one, serving the needs of business, the education sector, and the relationship between the institutions of State and the citizen. That is the framework within which we must seek to open up new opportunities for all our people. Indeed, it is the framework on which we are proceeding.

Following very useful research, undertaken by the Information Society Commission amongst others, the Government has allocated 7.7m pounds to kickstart a wide range of initiatives and projects. I expect that in the years ahead, very substantial funds will need to be injected in order that we will meet the demands of this new revolution. This is an area which will require significant attention in the years, not least in the context of a new Partnership Agreement. I single out the Information Society for special mention not because it holds a higher importance above all other elements in the infrastructural mix. I do so, because it is new, because it is being adopted elsewhere, and because it has the potential to radically transform many areas of our lives, including those of our children.

At the same time, we must of course continue with major investments for some years to come in such areas as roads, rail, ports, housing and so on.

At a more general level, another key aim will be to continue assisting balanced regional growth and this will be a main objective of the National Development Plan. As both a stimulus and input to that process, it is hoped to publish the White Paper on Rural Development next month. I believe that it is very much in the national interest to focus more resolutely on regional development - whether from the perspective of alleviating traffic congestion in Dublin or promoting new life into dying villages in the West. Again, this is an area which I would expect to feature in a new Partnership Agreement.

We are moving to the final stages of preparation of the Plan. We wish to have a further round of discussions with the social partners in September, to ensure that we can take full account of your views on the Plans focus and priorities.

Another key infrastructural challenge facing us is childcare. It is a matter of great economic and social importance. The issue is, of course, first and foremost about the care of children and from that hub are many spokes which touch centrally on many major policy matters - especially increasing female participation in the workforce, adopting more family friendly policies in the workplace, and addressing anomalies in the tax and social welfare codes. I think that all here would agree on the complexity of this area.

The position at present is that the Government will shortly consider the report of the interdepartmental group which has been looking at all of the options, both on the supply and the demand sides. Decisions will be taken and our overall aim will be the development of a policy to support flexible, high quality and equitable childcare arrangements.

Looking Ahead - The Partnership Challenge

Only a few lone voices now dissent from the widely shared view that the partnership model has worked exceptionally well in the Irish context. The key challenge now is to show the same sense of purpose and focus in the face of success as we have demonstrated in overcoming crises. For the first time in our history, we are virtually the masters of our own destiny; we have the capacity to realise aspirations which were once the stuff of pipe dreams. We can achieve this only by continuing to pool together the skills, creativity and shared effort that have brought us this far on the road to a new Ireland. As social partners, we share a vast common ground as to the nature and breadth of the challenges ahead. We also share a strong consensus, across many issues, on the parameters of solutions.

Against that background, therefore, we have sought to replicate national partnership at the workplace level. In a short space of time, the progress has been impressive, with very substantial increases in both the volume and range of partnership initiatives, including in the whole area of gain-sharing. This is a most important aspect of Partnership 2000 and I greatly appreciate the support it has received including in the public service where partnership is a cornerstone of the Strategic Management Initiative.

Partnership in the workplace will certainly become a much stronger feature of our social partnership for the future. To that end, I welcome in particular the progress being made in the exploratory discussions with the Public Services Committee of Congress on the future arrangements for public service pay.

Of course, workplace partnership is about more than income consideration. for example, I indicated recently that lifelong learning - especially in the context of the Information Society - could be significantly advanced by appropriate partnership arrangements. In all of this, the work of the National Centre for Partnership will assume ever increasing importance.

Another very good example of progress through partnership is the Agreement reached by the High Level Group on the Recognition of Unions and the Right to Bargain. While a significant achievement in its own right, the Agreement also represents a significant stepping stone on the path to a P2000 successor. I congratulate IBEC and ICTU on bringing the work of the Group to such a satisfactory outcome. My colleague here, the Tánaiste, is now preparing the necessary legislation and this will be brought before Government in the Autumn.

As the time for negotiations on a new Partnership Agreement draws near, I am conscious of a number of critical underlying factors:

- the shared co-operative endeavour between us all as social partners;

- the importance of social inclusion in terms of both societal well-being and economic progress; and

-the centrality of competitiveness in underpinning our economic success and, consequently, in advancing important social aims.

Between now and expiry of Partnership 2000, we will have a National Development Plan for the next round of Structural Funds and also Budget 2000.

We need to agree on a process that will cope with the timing of events. A first step should be building the priorities in the NDP into finalisation of the Strategy Report currently being prepared by the National Economic and Social Council. We could then move later to more formal negotiations, including reflection on the issues arising from the discussions on public service change that followed from my statement to the P2000 plenary in July of last year.

I remain confident that we can reach a new Partnership Agreement for the early years of the new millennium. I know that all of you here will do your best to ensure that a new Agreement will become a reality.

ENDS