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'Parting Company: Ending Social Partnership': Review of new pamphlet from the Irish Socialist Network

Joe Craig

9th March 2003

The introduction to this short publication states ‘We assert unashamedly that there can be no partnership between capital and labour, the exploiters and the exploited, the powerful and the marginalised.’  The reader is thus left in no doubt where the argument lies and it is one that can, of course, be completely endorsed.

The authors note that social partnership in Ireland, while often claimed to be unique to the country, has in fact ‘been a valuable instrument of class rule in many western European countries since the Second World War.’  They note that it has recently rested on ‘real concessions to certain sectors of that (working) class’ through, for example tax cuts skewed to the higher paid.  To offset any reaction by the more marginalised sectors of the class they argue that the elite has included the community and voluntary sector in the partnership process, ‘even if their role in the process is largely a token one.’

The authors note that the corporatism involved in social partnership deals started in 1987 when it was out of favour elsewhere.  They also note that it became the favoured strategy of the major capitalist parties not because of their strength but because of their weakness.  As we noted in our own book, ‘Prisoners of Social Partnership’,  reliance on the bureaucratic leaders of the trade union movement was a sign that they lacked confidence to make the frontal attacks on workers that had been carried out in such exemplary fashion by Thatcher in Britain.

On the other hand it is also noted that the level of militancy in the working class had declined markedly since the high point of the late nineteen seventies.  In this way the balance of class forces that existed had to be radically changed to allow the Irish State to solve its crisis, that of domestic capital and defend its attractiveness to multinational capital.

Community Pillar

One of the strong arguments of the pamphlet, that we did not make in our own analysis, is that the partnership process since 1996 has included the ‘community and voluntary pillar,’ which has involved their ‘institutionalisation into the structures of Partnership at the expense of local activities.’  We can see the ideological role played by the most vocal element of this pillar, the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI), in the politicking around the most recent partnership deal, ‘Sustaining Progress’.

It has loudly welcomed and championed the deal, in opposition to other voluntary organisations, despite the failures of the last one to deliver on its promises and despite the paucity of promises in this one.  This can hardly be unconnected to the State having bailed it out over claims from those abused by the religious orders while under their care.  This has undoubtedly saved these orders from sever financial hardship if not bankruptcy while placing the financial penalty for their abuse on the tax payer.  The idea that they are therefore independent of the State is therefore entirely questionable, although they seem to have embraced a much harder negotiating stance when fighting for their own interests than when arguing for those of the poor and marginalised they claim to represent.

The authors argue that ‘the trade unions and even more so the community sector represent the least powerful forces at the Partnership negotiating Table.’  This is correct if we also discount the farming organisations.

The authors see Partnership as an example of Gramsci’s concept of hegemony: ‘Gramsci asserts a hegemonic class is one, which gains the consent of other classes and rules through creating and maintaining a system of alliances by means of political and ideological struggle.  The notion of building up a system of alliances is central to his concept of hegemony.’  It is therefore strange that the authors do not raise the question of what programme might win small farmers to an alliance with workers or how sections of the population that various organisations from the community pillar claim to represent may be won to the workers’ side.  They are however correct to note the complete capitulatuoion of the trade unions to existing free market ideology.

The authors record the dire consequences of Partnership: the relative fall of wages and rise in profits in the economy as a whole; the increase in inequality sanctioned by Partnership agreements that deal in percentage pay rises; privatisation of public services; attacks on trade union rights; the continuing inequality and failure of the health and education systems ; the increasing problem of affordable housing; the rise of racism that the trade unions have quietly conspired with; and the stifling of discussion among community organisations now co-opted to the Partnership process.  In all these areas the pamphlet gives solid information and argumentation.


The necessity for a socialist alternative is made clear from the introduction and it is on this that the strength of the pamphlet must be judged.  Obviously in such a small publication of only nineteen pages this alternative cannot be detailed or comprehensive and many questions will not have been taken up.

The first point on their alternative list of tasks, perhaps surprisingly, is not to do with the trade unions themselves.  They call ‘for the building of a strong radical left.’  This emphasis on politics is the most welcome part of the whole approach.
This does not signal a lack of appreciation of the importance of the fight within the trade union movement as later points show and as earlier they declare:  ‘We need a broad campaign within the trade union movement to reject any future participation in Partnership and to turn the trade unions into an effective weapon in the struggle for socialism in Ireland’  (Whether or to what extent the present trade unions can play such a role is a large and unclear discussion which is not touched upon.)  The authors correctly state that ‘The first step in such a campaign would be the setting up of a genuinely representative rank and file movement bringing together all progressive groupings and individuals in a sustained bid to challenge the dominance of the conservative bureaucracy.’

The pamphlet states that ‘This credible alternative must take into account that there are two different types of ‘socialist’.  Those who claim they wish to reform capitalism and those who struggle to bring about the socialist transformation of society.  The Irish Socialist Network is only interested in working with the latter.  To facilitate this there is a need for the existing radical socialist organisations to come together to work on key issues, with a view to forming a broad left alliance at the core of which would be those committed to the full abolition of capitalism.’

Socialist Democracy would see a number of problems with this.  First we would not see two different sorts of socialist being defined by some unspecified commitment to abolition of capitalism as against those who wish merely to reform capitalism, within which it can further be possible to distinguish a core committed to the full abolition of capitalism.

For us the distinction to be drawn is between those who seek to reform capitalism into socialism, that is genuinely seek reforms (as opposed to current social democrats and Stalinists who actually seek only to impose a neo-liberal agenda) and those who understand that capitalism can only be overthrown and socialism built through a revolution.  The word ‘radical’ instead of revolutionary gives us some cause to doubt this is an idea shared with the pamphlet’s authors.

It is possible and necessary to have united action with non-revolutionaries in a united front which has clear and limited goals and which is committed to action.  It is not possible to have the sort of strategic alliance that appears to be put forward in the pamphlet without agreement on the strategy for socialism i.e. the need for a revolutionary road.  In the points that follow a number of other formulations appear to be particularly weak such as the call for international solidarity but not for an international organisation and party.  Also the fashionable disparagement of a vanguard party is not to be welcomed as the concept of hegemony that is welcomed is empty without that of leadership, which only such a party can provide.

These and other issues however can be clarified by debate and overall the pamphlet is a useful contribution to the embryonic debate on social partnership that has commenced.  The pamphlet can be ordered directly from the Irish Socialist Network, 19 Fairways Grove, Finglas East, Dublin 11 for €3 or from Socialist Democracy (€3/£1.50 plus 50c/50p p&p).  The Irish Socialist Network can be contacted on email at



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