Paradox in Policy and Practice: Trade Unions and Public Policy in the Republic of Ireland

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Introduction

This paper considers the interaction of public policy and industrial relations in the Republic of Ireland. Using recent research data the paper evaluates current developments in industrial relations with particular emphasis on the role of trade unions and the adoption of human resource management (HRM) approaches. The paper concludes that despite a decade of national level 'partnership' agreements between Government, employers and organised labour, there is limited evidence of employer-labour partnership at enterprise level while the extent of trade union penetration in new growth industries continues to diminish apace. It is argued that these findings raise important paradoxes between espoused Government policy, which supports a strong trade union role in industry, and actual practice, which encourages the attraction of start-up industries which actively avoid trade union recognition. Some of the reasons for this phenomenon are also explored.

Industrial Relations and Public Policy

Industrial relations in Ireland has traditionally been associated with a strong pluralist orientation. This pluralist tradition is manifested in comparatively high levels of union density and recognition, a reliance on adversarial collective bargaining and industrial relations as the key human resource priority in organisations. Despite Ireland's relatively recent industrialisation, organised labour has long played a prominent role in Irish history, with trade unions well established in many industries by the early 1900s.

In evaluating Irish industrial relations, two particular aspects of public policy have underpinned State approaches to the area: (i) support for trade unions and collective bargaining and promotion of centralised `social partnership' agreements and (ii) Constitutional right of freedom of association.

Historically, Irish Governments have supported the principle of collective bargaining and accepted the legitimacy and role of trade unions at enterprise and national level. Traditionally, Government approaches to industrial relations were grounded in the "voluntarist" tradition, essentially characterised by a `hands off approach once having established a legislative and procedural environment to underpin collective bargaining. This approach was largely an historical legacy of the British voluntarist tradition. However, since the early 1980s the industrial relations approaches of British and Irish Governments have taken markedly differing routes. Recent Irish Governments have been strong advocates of centralised agreements on pay and other aspects of economic and social policy, involving negotiations between main `social partners' (Government, Employer, Trade Union and Farming federations). Since 1987 Ireland has had five centralised agreements, with the current PPF (Programme for Prosperity and Fairness) agreement scheduled to expire in 2003. As we know, these agreements deal not only with pay, but with a range of economic and social policy issues such as welfare provision, employment creation and tax reform. Thus, at a macro level, the Irish industrial relations system provides for significant trade union influence in shaping economic and social policy. Turning to enterprise level, we find that both the most recent centralised agreements (Partnership 2000 and PPF) have sought to promote partnership based industrial relations arrangements at enterprise level with the first of these agreements providing for the establishment of a National Centre for Partnership with a mandate to advance partnership at enterprise level in both the private and public sector.

A critical aspect of Irish public policy in industrial relations is the Constitutional support for the concept of freedom of association. Article 40.6.1. of the Irish Constitution provides for the right of individuals to form or join associations or unions. This provision has also been inter interpreted to include an implied right not to join trade unions where individuals do wish to do so. …