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In the Republic of Ireland, the trade union tradition is different. Irish trade unions, through Connolly’s Citizen Army, played a role in setting up the state, and they feel proprietorial about it: they see no contradiction in ensuring that the institutions of the Irish state work well. Indeed the orientation of SIPTU (the old Irish T&GWU) still consciously derives from its sense of itself as the trade union ‘wing’ of the national movement.

The Irish Social Partnership, which has played an important role in running the Irish economy, was heavily influenced by a whole generation of Irish civil servants going back and forth to Europe, particularly to see how the German system worked. But through all the years of Social Partnership - when National Partnership Agreements required a vote at the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) - it was the British head-quartered unions who voted against, almost without fail. (15)

(15) For more on this, see Tim Hastings, Brian Sheehan & Padraig Yeates: Saving the Future: How Social Partnership Shaped Ireland’s Economic Success, Blackhall Publishing, Blackrock, Co. Dublin, 2007 and review by Philip O’Connor, Lifting the Boats -

Meanwhile, in Scotland the Mather Report, Working Together, published in 2014, has provided a template that will - given fair wind - move Scottish industrial relations away from the British adversarial tradition and towards co-determination and social partnership. (16) Although, unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland doesn’t yet have control over employment law, it soon will, and the results will be very interesting.

(16) See

Industrial democracy is at the core of the Mather review’s recommendations. This follows on from a number of years of thinking and research on the utilisation of skills, which has moved Scotland away from a barren market-based policy focusing narrowly on ‘skill supply’ to a Scandinavian model of workplace engagement and getting the best from the collective intelligence and ability of the workforce. Much depends on whether trade unions in Scotland are able to take advantage of this more positive environment to secure a greater measure of industrial democracy, and in so doing to take partial control of their own economic destiny.

As Oxford academic Ewart Keep, who supported the review working group, commented:

'… the Review underlines the fact that, at least in relation to issues to do with the workplace and employment relations, Scotland is already strongly divergent from the dominant and well-established policy model that those in Westminster would generally wish to follow … It is not simply that the …. Government would neither be willing to commission nor act upon anything akin to the Working Together Review and its findings, but that some within the Labour Party at Westminster would also probably find the Review’s report slightly uncomfortable and unsettling reading. Its underlying assumptions about what the accepted ‘best practice’ model of industrial relations might look like are simply too radical and too strongly located within a Northern European social democratic and social partnership tradition to be liable to play well with the Neo-Liberal media and employer interests that politicians have become used to deferring to.'

The Mather Review was followed up by the establishment of the Scottish Fair Work Convention, which produced its Fair Work Framework in 2016, developing a ‘Fair Innovative and Transformative’ (FIT) work model. (17) This recognised that innovation in the workplace in large part depends on workers’ talents and abilities, which will flourish if there is a proper space for worker contribution: ‘Supportive practices for effective voice include trade union recognition and collective bargaining; task level organisation-level involvement and participation practices; communication and consultation arrangements and any processes that give scope to individuals and groups to air their views, be listened to and to influence outcomes.’

(17) See

Further work in Scotland, published by the Jimmy Reid Foundation and endorsed by the STUC, sets out a vision for Scotland that is far in advance of thinking in England. (18) Notwithstanding that employment law is not yet a devolved power, Scotland has clearly ‘left the room’ on this debate, and with appropriate Labour Party and trade union activism could be heading towards a social partnership model of running the economy.

(18) See ‘Rights and Respect: A vision for democracy in the workplace’: Gall for Jimmy Reid Foundation, 2016 at

In every crisis, there is an opportunity. Theresa May has few answers to the current impasse, and this means that there is a chance for the left to put forward a coherent alternative. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to make trade unionism relevant to the building of a new world. But we can only do so if we understand the past, and can orientate ourselves clearly within a changed environment. Workers’ control, along with a broadly conceived industrial strategy, represents an important part of the left alternative to neoliberalism.