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Speech at the Plenary Meeting with the Social Partners, Dublin Castle


I am delighted to be here with you, together with my colleagues, the Tanaiste, and the Minister for Finance, at this key Plenary meeting.

Our purpose in coming together today is to begin the process of considering the nature and scope of a successor to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness.

This morning is not a time for negotiations that will come over the coming days and weeks. It is, however, an opportunity for us to outline the priority concerns, which we will each bring to this process. Needless to say, the Government are in absolutely no doubt that a renewed consensus expressed in a new social partnership agreement is in the best interests of all our people.

At the outset, I would like to record the Governments deep appreciation of the positive contribution made by all the social partners during the past three years, and I look forward to continuing to work in a partnership framework with you during a very challenging period ahead. I also want to take the opportunity to again emphasise, with my colleagues, the Governments continued strong commitment to pursuing our nations well-being and prosperity through the process of Social Dialogue.

We have made immense progress through the social partnership process and are now very confident in a process that helps us progress to the fair and just society that we want. We have agreed strategies in a range of policy areas and, together with the Programme for Government, they set the way forward for the years ahead. Our focus now should be on agreeing a strategy that ensures that the outcomes we have agreed are achieved.

Social Dialogue

The decision we took fifteen years ago to enter the Programme for National Recovery was a critical turning point in the fortunes of the people of this country. In 1987 the sense of national crisis prompted a concerted search for ways to escape the vicious circle of stagnation, rising taxes and spiralling debt. This search, involving the social partners, Government Departments and key analysts, had at its centre the National Economic and Social Council, which over the previous decade, had developed a capacity for strategic analysis and a highly respected role in policy advice.

The key message in the NESC Strategy document which informed the PNR agreement in 1987 had been that we needed a strategy to manage interlocking elements of the economy and the behaviour of economic agents.

The pattern of negotiation which applied in the case of the PNR became the blue-print to be followed in the case of each of the successor agreements, with a report by the NESC assessing through dialogue and joint problem solving, past experience and setting out the parameters for the future thereby providing a strategic focus for the subsequent negotiations. I am glad to note that the NESC is nearing completion of the current strategy report and that it will be available to inform the negotiations.

Social Partnership is essentially a process of deliberation, involving a search for consensus in addressing trade-offs both between and within different interest groups in addressing joint problems. It is a very practically-oriented process focusing on agreed outcomes; this has been a major strength.

It is my firm and personal belief that the decision to embrace social partnership and the accompanying process of intensive engagement has been profound in its effects on the economic and social destiny of this country.

For this reason, we explicitly stated in the New Programme for Government that we would seek to negotiate a new partnership agreement to follow the PPF.

As I have said, the series of agreements we have had since 1987 have played a very significant role in the radical transformation of this countrys economic and social fortunes in the recent past. And, while it is not my wish to bore you with statistics, here are some key statistics, which are worth repeating again and again least we forget where we came from and how far social partnership has brought us. Remember it was by working together, in a planned and disciplined way, that we succeeded in reducing the National Debt to GNP Ratio from 125% in 1987 to 36% in 2001, in embedding a pro-enterprise approach in our culture and society, in generating enormous numbers of new jobs 600,000 in the period to end 2001 and in raising our living standards from 67% of the EU average in 1987 to above the EU average today.

Our familiarity with the social dialogue process can lead us all to undervalue it and perhaps raise a danger of taking it for granted.  This reality presents an even greater challenge for the social partnership process, in an environment where growth has now slowed and the more limited resources will have to be managed prudently.  As a society we must face the challenge of securing our future well being. To do this requires us all collectively to take hard decisions and make difficult choices to keep us competitive in a fast changing world, in order to generate the jobs and the resources required to continue to address poverty, which remains a reality.

New Programme for Government

In my remarks at the last PPF Plenary in July, I said that I would be inviting organisations to participate in negotiations on a new agreement in the context that the Government will be entering talks on the basis of our own Programme for Government. I also made it clear that those organisations invited to participate in the talks do so on the basis that social partnership brings rights and responsibilities, that are exercised in a spirit of mutual respect for the primacy of the democratic process and, that what is agreed must reflect the objective needs of the whole community and the necessary accountability for public policy and funds. The New Programme commits us to sustaining economic growth and maintaining full employment in the Irish economy.  It sets out an agenda for all strategic areas of Government activity aimed at building a fair society of equality and opportunity and of sustained prosperity for all.

I should add that the Programme for Government indicated that the models of participation in the social partnership process would be reviewed, including an examination of ways of maximising both the efficiency and effectiveness of the process and the potential contribution of the community and voluntary sectors. A number of organisations have applied for inclusion in the partnership process. How we can achieve our objectives, in the context of these applications, is very much on our minds, and it is an inherent part of the process that any changes proposed will be discussed with the relevant Pillar.

Implementing the Vision of a Successful Society

In its 1999 Strategy report, the NESC proposed a new vision for Ireland and an accompanying strategy to deliver that vision. It argued that the foundations for a successful society are

  • A dynamic economy, and
  • A participatory society,
  • Incorporating a commitment to social justice,
  • Based on consistent economic development that is socially and environmentally sustainable,
  • Which responds especially to the constantly evolving requirements of international competitiveness, understood as the necessary condition of continuing economic and social success.

This vision had several key dimensions, the most important of which were:

  • economic inclusion based on full employment,
  • social inclusion, reflecting full participation in those activities which constitute the norm in society,
  • successful and continuing adaptation to change,
  • commitment to the utilisation and development of the potential of the Information Society and the promotion of research and development,
  • commitment to lifelong learning,
  • environmentally sustainable and balanced development between regions and between urban and rural areas,
  • commitment to the further development of the European Union and international solidarity, and
  • an entrepreneurial culture that observes the highest ethical and environmental standards.

I believe we can achieve this vision for Ireland. We are, after all, coming together against a background, not just of what we have achieved with the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and its predecessors, but also, with agreed frameworks for tackling the challenges ahead in implementing such a vision of a successful society for Ireland. For example, delivery of the infrastructure projects in the NDP is designed to tackle and remedy our accumulated infrastructure deficits.

The National  Health Strategy which has a 7 to 10 year life is now firmly in place and its implementation is a central plank of Government Policy.

Significant progress has been made towards our core objective  of bringing about a fairer and more inclusive society. In the revised National Anti Poverty Strategy we have the required framework for action to tackle disadvantage and exclusion into the future, informed by the view that poverty and exclusion are complex and multi dimensional  and that the solutions require a coherent and integrated solution.

The achievement of Equality is a key goal which also must underpin our endeavours in all policy areas.  We already have an advanced legislative framework for equality in this country, on which we can build to ensure that, as society changes, we are continuously able to tackle inequalities, which might arise.  

So, key building blocks for the future are now more or less in place supported by more detailed and integrated strategies at programme level. The NESC Strategy Report will also set down priorities for the future, and identify blockages and how best to address them.

Need to reflect on what can be done

As I have said, the vision we share for Ireland can become a reality. However, it is the Governments view that this requires a realistic approach to the pace at which progress can be made, and a sense of balance between the various elements of the vision.  In particular, the expectations about  the scope for incomes increases across all sectors of the economy need to be realistic in the current economic situation. This has particular implications for the public service regarding the implementation of the Benchmarking Report recommendations.

As we are all aware, the public finances are facing serious pressure over the next few years. The economic slowdown has limited the scope for further increases in public expenditure, while the citizen continues to demand more and improved public services. At the same time, the Benchmarking Body has recommended pay awards carrying a very substantial Exchequer cost, on top of a public sector pay bill, which has already increased significantly in recent years. These pressures leave us with difficult choices.

The reality is that general economic conditions are tighter now than they have been at any point in the last five years. The international environment has become dramatically more challenging over recent months and the outlook is, to say the least, uncertain. The competitiveness agenda has become much more demanding, as recent job losses have underlined. The inevitable impact on the public finances has become sharply evident over recent weeks and months. Therefore it is vitally important that realism should guide us all.

We have it in our own hands to a large degree, to determine how the Irish economy will perform over the coming years. However, in order to secure an agreed outcome , it will be imperative that expectations should keep in line with the current economic realities. There are undoubtedly concerns on all sides that will need to be addressed if we are to have a new agreement. And a strong dose of realism in relation to expectations will be called for on all sides.

We have a clear choice. We can choose between planning and working together for success, as we have in the recent past or pursuing sectional interests, as we did in the presocial partnership era. We will have  jointly to take hard decisions on what our immediate priorities should be and on those priorities that will need to be delivered in a more favourable economic climate.

As I mentioned at the start of my address, we made similar hard choices in 1987 and they provided a solid platform for economic and social development from which all of the people subsequently benefited.  While nobody wishes to go back to the bad old days, we do have to moderate our expectations so that we are in a healthy position to take advantage of the upturn in the world economy when, eventually, it comes.


Before closing, could I suggest that we try to progress these negotiations to get to the core issues as rapidly as possible from the start. We all know each other well by now  - I can see a number of faces, from as far back as the first social partnership agreement I know that we can engage constructively from the start so that it should be possible to set a fairly ambitious timeframe for hammering out a new agreement.

Thank you.