Review: Saving the Future

Contributed by Kevin Hora

A rising tide of unemployment, unions and employers at loggerheads, and a government on the brink of bankruptcy: for Celtic tiger cubs, coming to terms with the end of the only economic model they have known, it may be scarcely conceivable that the current economic crisis has an earlier, more scarring antecedent. The Irish economy of the 1980s was typified by high taxes, industrial unrest and a lack of belief, even privately among themselves, that politicians could find solutions to transform the economy.

Saving the Future draws on interviews with over 40 prominent political, business, and union leaders who, over two decades, helped shape public policy through wage agreements and broader social commitments.  The authors, respected industrial relations correspondents, bring a strong editorial sense of how to distil this combined wisdom into a deceptively light, but effective narrative.  Eschewing a preponderance of economic and statistical data, they allow the interviewees to progress the story of partnership in a more fluid, balanced fashion.  The path from job losses to full employment, and the development of an economy that was the envy of other EU states, is well charted and is a salutary reminder of how far Ireland travelled in the last two decades.

The authors are generally sympathetic to the role played by unions in achieving social partnership.  Certainly, much of the credit for the ideological change necessary to achieve partnership goes to the union leadership.  Employers groups and politicians receive more critical treatment, although the authors do provide a compelling account of the early 1980s from which all the partners emerge with enhanced reputations.  Ray McSharry, the Fianna Fáil Minister for Finance whose contribution is often overshadowed by Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern, is fittingly accorded recognition for his handling of the economy.  Initial governmental scepticism regarding the inclusion of social partners is worthy of more investigation, and the book falls down in this regard, noting only that it was a political, rather than economic, decision taken by the Taoiseach of the Rainbow Coalition, John Bruton.

Of course, advances in wealth and public confidence do not inure economies to future shocks.  Ireland Inc.’s love affair with partnership, under threat when this book was researched, is dealt with, and remedies suggested.  A stimulating final chapter asks whether social partnership is the right vehicle to drive the economy forward.  Partnership sowed the seeds of its own destruction, as the later agreements bogged down over pay issues, and the cycle of high pay awards to keep pace with economic growth, inflation and rising property prices became unsustainable.  Presciently, the authors identify maintaining competitiveness and social justice in a global economy as the critical factors facing the Irish economy.  However, with the book in production before the global financial crisis precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, their upbeat assessment that the importance of partnership to the partners themselves, now firmly institutionalised within the process, is such that they are unlikely to walk away from the negotiating table is an assertion that may well be tested before the current phase of partnership is over.

Saving the Future has many merits in its clear and well-structured approach. The book is not without its minor faults however.  Among these is the tendency to stray from hard analysis into journalistic writing that, while short and precise, nonetheless produces passages more akin to colour writing than an economic treatise.  One of the more annoying journalistic traits to creep into the book is the occasional use of anonymous quotes: it is an unnecessary distraction that leaves the reader with the vague dissatisfaction of not quite knowing the whole story.  To be fair to the authors, journalistic treatment of the vicissitudes of social partnership does make the book more accessible to a wider audience, and it is this general readership rather than the student of economics who will find the book most useful.

Tim Hastings, Brian Sheehan and Padraig Yeates, Saving the Future.  How Social Partnership Shaped Ireland’s Economic Success. (Dublin: Blackhall Publishing, 2007).

Kevin Hora is a PhD student at Trinity College Dublin, researching governmental propaganda in the Irish Free State.  He lectures in politics and public affairs in Rathmines College of Further Education, and the School of Media, DIT Aungier St.

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