(The Nationalist, 23 July 1999)
By the mid-1980’s Ireland was heading fast for Third World status. We had high unemployment, emigration, inflation, taxation and the world’s largest level of indebtedness per capita. Since the early seventies we had been living beyond our means and we had paid the bills with borrowed money. Wages and prices kept leap-frogging over one another. ‘A rake’s progress’ was how a government minister of the day described it. There were constant strikes, a lot of social tension, and a seeming inability on our part to get our act together intelligently. Industrial relations were often a matter of stubborn showdowns and childish name-calling. There was an understandable mood of despair in the country, as people saw no way out.
What happened was that sanity prevailed; people recognized that we were going nowhere. There was a public acceptance that we had to change from confrontation to co-operation or we’d all go under together. The idea of partnership was born and in 1987 the first programme of economic and social development was agreed between government, trade unions, employers and farmers. Under various names, others have followed that first programme down to the present Partnership 2000.
It was a remarkable achievement, especially considering that, at the same time, Margaret Thatcher across the water was busy clobbering the unions as her response to a less serious situation. The result of the partnership process was that the Celtic Tiger was born. It has its limitations, such as a greater disparity between the rich and the relatively poor, very high prices for building sites, and crude, sometimes in-your-face materialism. But it has brought many benefits: tens of thousands of young Irish men and women who would have had to emigrate are now working at home; unemployed people have moved from the dole to PAYE, making more money available for other purposes; and people are probably better fed, clothed, housed, educated and cared for in health and social welfare than at any other time in Ireland’s history. Increased prosperity has opened up many possibilities for people, which would have been only a dream as recently as one decade ago.
Why not make more of a good idea by extending the partnership process to other levels of public decision-making? For instance, in the sensitive areas of health, education and social welfare, would it not be to our advantage to apply the human relations’ lessons of the partnership experience? Take health, for example. At times, public discussion is reminiscent of 1980’s-style squabbling. Blame the nurses or the ministers for health or finance or whomever your fancy chooses for the long hospital waiting lists or any of the other problems. Would it not be better all round to draw together in a co-operative process the department of health, nurses, doctors, administrators, and the general public? (A Patients’ Association, perhaps?)
One example gives hope that it can be done. Recently, the various public bodies involved in the beef industry got together and entered into an agreement to enhance the position of the Irish beef industry. And didn’t it need it after the scandals of the beef tribunal, mad cow disease, angel dust, growth hormones, and crookery in schemes to eradicate bovine TB and brucellosis? Irish farmers are now suffering for all that in low beef prices. It remains to be seen whether the new beef agreement will work but we can only wish them well.
Why not try the same process in health, education and social welfare? The benefit could be better human relations all round, and a better country for you and me to live in. It’s a matter of applying in another context the lesson we learned by hard experience that cooperation is better than confrontation.