News & Events

Address by Minister Sean Sherlock at the Edward Phelan Lecture in the Royal College of Surgeons on Thursday 14 February 2013

14th February 2013: Director General, (Guy Ryder, Director General ILO) Chancellor (Maurice Manning, Chancellor NUI) , ladies and gentlemen

Director General, (Guy Ryder, Director General ILO) Chancellor (Maurice Manning, Chancellor NUI) , ladies and gentlemen

Thank you, Guy, for an excellent lecture and one that will stimulate much discussion into the night and well beyond.

Edward Phelan was very much a man of, and a man ahead of, his time.

His work with the ILO was ground-breaking in terms of bringing to reality the idea of internationally established and agreed labour standards at a time when the fundamental political principles of society were in considerable flux with no pre-determined outcome guaranteed. Those times provided real and present challenges to politicians and administrators and it is to our considerable relief that people like Edward Phelan made the right choices.

Other aspects of Edward’s life reflect both his times and our times, particularly those of the Irish. [As you have said], Edward grew up in Tramore in Waterford, and the sea and travel were in his blood. From his house he would have seen a famous local landmark, the “Metal Man”, built in the 1820s explicitly to warn travellers of the dangers ahead particularly as they neared the shore. I like to think that Edward bore this motto in mind as he exhorted, and cajoled and helped get agreement on the ILO’s founding principles and, in perhaps his greatest challenge; steering the ILO through difficult times as the Second World War was drawing to a close. He fought for and achieved the retention of the ILO among the key post-war institutions and got agreement on the “Declaration of Philadelphia” which restated the traditional objectives of the ILO and added two more: the centrality of human rights to social policy, and the need for international economic planning.

Like many Irish, before and since, Edward travelled to Liverpool, a place in your blood too, and, like many Irish, eventually settled in the Everton district of the city. He was fortunate to go to the local school that has an enviable record in terms of successful past pupils – several winners of the Victoria Cross, judges, professors, archbishops, politicians and most famously - at least in Ireland I suppose - Dixie Dean and Elvis Costello. He had a good start.

His family then moved to Hamburg – not the last Liverpudlian to make that journey!

Like many Irish before and since, he did well and made his way through the University of Liverpool – which you did too – and on through the ranks of the British Civil Service and into the ILO. At all times, he never lost contact with Ireland and was anxious to advance Ireland’s interests whenever he could.

His emigration story is being retold in the lives of Irish people today but, as the economy recovers, I am confident that the narrative will change and the flow will stop and reverse. I am confident too that, whatever the circumstances of their going, our returning emigrants will bring with them new visions of working and living that will be of tremendous benefit, and, like Edward in his time, make a strong and positive contribution to the recovery and future development of Ireland.

We are also here this evening partly because of the generous bequest made by Edward Phelan's family to the National University of Ireland in his memory. It now funds a Fellowship support postgraduates working for a doctoral degree in areas of International Law.

Edward saw the ILO primarily as an international organisation designed to improve working conditions for workers. At the time this was both a moral and political imperative. To achieve this goal he recognised that to be truly effective such an organisation must provide a voice for labour and employers – and it was his particular commitment to the latter that helped shape the ILO structure from the outset – particularly with regard to delegate representation at International Labour Conferences. Essentially, he saw the ILO as a three-legged stool which, without the support of any one leg, will fall. And that has remained the case ever since.

Of course, from time to time, for whatever reason, one of the legs may become a little loose causing some instability but the ILO has always been able to find the right glue to fix the leg. I have no doubt but that, if and when required, this particular skill will be even more evident under your leadership. Much as in 1919, it is vital that each element of the structure feels secure, particularly in these extremely challenging times.

We have seen evidence of that in Ireland too. As you know, the Irish model of social dialogue has evolved and continues to evolve. For two decades prior to the current crisis social dialogue in Ireland was a form of bargained corporatism. The State functioned in co-operation with organised interest groups who then had a very real say in policy making on the proviso that these bodies would be able to deliver their respective constituencies.

However, the severity of the crisis in 2009 was such that, despite their best efforts, the social partners were unable to negotiate an agreed response, and by the end of that year, that particular social dialogue model ceased to exist. Social dialogue has continued (albeit in a different format) and some considerable developments have taken place:

• A Public Sector Agreement was negotiated between the State as employer and the public sector trade unions and further discussions are ongoing to try to extend and deepen it further,

• IBEC and ICTU have agreed two National Protocols for the Orderly Conduct of Industrial Relations and Local Bargaining in the Private Sector,

• the Government sought the views of both sides during the preparation of Ireland's National Reform Programme as part of the Europe 2020 process,

• In my own Department extensive social dialogue discussions and consultations have taken place and in some instances are still on-going on:

▪ the renegotiation of the EU/IMF agreement around the restoration of the minimum wage to protect vulnerable workers,

▪ the current reform programme relating to the workplace relations machinery and the establishment of the Workplace Relations Commission,

▪ the introduction of the Temporary Agency Work legislation,

▪ before and following the enactment of the Industrial Relations Amendment Act 2012, and

▪ very recently, Minister Richard Bruton has written to all social dialogue actors in terms of reviewing collective bargaining against the backdrop of industrial relations legislation. (Indeed it was on Edward Phelan’s watch that Convention 87 was adopted).

Social dialogue continues to play a critical role in policy making and in the management of the Irish economy at what is a very difficult time for the majority of Irish citizens. It is not reliant on some fragile or back up "life support" mechanism or on occasional sporadic attention. It evolves and shapes itself to suit the circumstances of the time and will continue to do so. In this regard I would like to acknowledge the positive engagement by ICTU, IBEC and other representative bodies with the Government and my Department over the past while.

I know that one of the key topics for discussion at the International Labour Conference in June of this year is social dialogue and its role in helping economies and societies recover from the current crisis. Ireland’s experience underlines the need for social dialogue in identifying pathways through and hopefully out of the crisis. Not everyone will agree on the path eventually chosen and that is part of the dialogue process. What Ireland has learned is that political and economic realities shape policy responses at a particular time and what appears a paragon in some circumstances may not work in others. Life is always in flux and as Arthur O’Shaughnessy, an English poet born to Irish emigrant parents, wrote:

“For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth”.

In terms of dreams coming to birth, we believe that the end to the crisis is on the horizon and it is time to try to look beyond that line to imagine the world post-crisis, much as your predecessors Albert Thomas, Harold Butler and Edward Phelan did at the end stages of the First and Second World Wars.

You have spoken in the past about the shared values of the EU and the ILO in relation to fundamental rights at work, decent work for all and the need for ILO and EU to co-operate as effectively as possible and orient their efforts towards a jobs-rich recovery. These are sentiments and aspirations with which all of us concur.

In many ways, the forthcoming ILO European Region Conference in Oslo in eight weeks’ time could not be more timely. My colleague, Joan Burton, Minister for Social Protection, will attend and I can assure you that the government and the social partners together look forward to your own Report and to the plenary discussions on making job-rich growth happen, coherent policies for growth and jobs, promoting quality jobs through effective social dialogue and collective bargaining and youth employment.

As you know, we were only too delighted last December to host the first of a series of national seminars on the governance of policy reform in those European Member States particularly affected by the crisis. These seminars are part of a wider research project that is being undertaken by the International Labour Office, together with the ILO International Training Centre, whose Director, Patricia O'Donovan is with us this evening. Our involvement in this project has been an early demonstration of the commitment of the Irish Presidency of the EU Council to engage fully on behalf of the EU Member States not only with regard to the forthcoming Oslo Conference but also in relation to the International Labour Conference in Geneva in June.

Further afield, the Irish government is very strongly committed, through Irish Aid’s support for the ILO’s “Decent Work Agenda”, to providing greater opportunities for people in developing countries to help them secure decent employment and incomes. Since its inception, the ILO-Irish Aid Partnership Programme has contributed substantially to livelihood improvement, poverty reduction as well as influencing the development of workplace and employment policy.

There is no question but that the crisis has had a very significant impact on the lives of many European citizens but the work of the ILO in less developed countries throws the differing priorities of the ILO member states and regions into stark relief.

I know that you are attending an Irish Aid/ILO panel discussion tomorrow; an event specially arranged to coincide with your visit. I am delighted to hear that you will also be paying a visit to our President, Michael D Higgins, in Áras an Uachtaráin.

I would like to wish you a good and fruitful day tomorrow and to extend our thanks again for your thought-provoking contribution tonight and to wish the ILO, and you personally, every success throughout your tenure as Director General.

ENDS

Back to Top