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‘We must welcome a seminal document on the economy, society and a just transition ~ NESC Report 149’

Article by President Higgins, 26 April, 2020

This speech was first published as an article in The Sunday Businesses Post, on 26th April 2020.

Many people have written of the significance for Irish economic history of the publication of what was to become known as ‘The Whitaker Report’, and its connection to Ireland’s First Programme for Economic Expansion 1958 to 1963.

T.K. Whitaker has been rightly honoured for his dedicated and exemplary work as a senior civil servant. While many reports on different aspects of society and economy make a valuable contribution, few take on the seminal status of an influencing document on policy such as Dr Whitaker’s document in 1958 did.

I believe there is a contemporary candidate in Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a ‘Just Transition’ in Ireland: Report No. 149 of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), published on the 31st March 2020.

It would be an incredible loss if, due to the understandable concentration on COVID-19 and its impact, this document did not get the attention it deserves.

That loss would be considerable, given that the document is the product of a consensus from all sections of the Irish economy, civil society and the public service. It is, however, for reasons beyond that consensus, important as it is, that the document has significance.

It makes, to my mind, a valuable analysis of the efficient development of the economy and the achievement of social justice, as one of NESC’s terms of reference puts it.

The Government had asked NESC to examine the specific issue of the vulnerability for workers, its forms, and sectors impacted by two transitions – the transition to net zero carbon and the deepening of technological and digitalisation developments.

The Council built on research and consultation that was available through the preparations across Government Departments in relation to Brexit. The report is a research-validated overview of the challenges facing the economy as it is embedded in society, and the practical choices facing employers and business.

As we now look towards meeting the considerable challenges faced by our society, its economy and the environment in which they exist, may I suggest that this document is an invaluable resource; a credit to those who researched, prepared and agreed it.

The vision is outlined in its Executive Summary:-

“Our vision for Ireland is to become a resilient, sustainable, thriving net zero economy, environment and society, using innovation and collective preparedness to shape the future we want to achieve. It is a vision for an Ireland where the State plays its part in ensuring mission-oriented actions to achieve a high quality jobs economy, and productively addresses employment vulnerability as part of a just transition.”

NESC Report #149 is, admirably, open to differing and flexible opportunities, accepting that there is no readily available template, recipe or ‘off-the-shelf’ approach.

It makes 12 key recommendations and envisages these being taken forward by a Just Transition Review Group in a way that is “fair, participative and place-based both in process and outcome”.

Following what is a valuable map of the agencies of the State and their relationship to perceived vulnerabilities of employment, business and funding, it speaks of how innovation and regional development can be taken into account.

This return to regionalism is so welcome. Decades ago, the late Dr Michael Bannon and I attended as Irish observers to the British Regional Studies Association.

With the exception of such scholars as Professor P.J. Drudy, meaningful regionalism has received scant attention and, of course, its achievement would have required the surrender of jealously-protected, if insufficient, institutional planning structures.

The third part of NESC #149 draws on “the just transition approach in international, EU and Irish policy”. It would be a tragedy if the pressure of contemporary events led to the neglect of this valuable contribution. The challenges identified by the report will endure beyond the current crisis, and the Council has identified recommendations which will help Ireland address these and also embrace the significant opportunities that will arise. Studying transition, in the particular manner that the Council has done, is relevant to the COVID19 crisis, its aftermath and our recovery.

Its structure fits perfectly, of course, with the objectives to which we have, with other nations, made a commitment – the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The research underscores the critical importance of approaching any major transition in an economy as a ‘just transition’, committing to the principle of equality of participation in society and economy, assuring that the vulnerable are protected, that inclusion and participation are centre-stage. It includes a review of existing and emerging just transition literature in relation to work.

The authors also correctly emphasises how major transformations require an enormous commitment to research and evidence, and that such evidence should be from multiple sources.

The NESC report offers us a useful, indeed visionary, intellectual framework for the wider challenge we face as we attempt to forge a new path to an enlightened political economy, founded on ecology, social cohesion and equality. It recommends:

“a purposeful, participative and multi-faceted approach to governance; appropriate social protection for those at risk from transition impacts; supportive arrangements and sectoral measures, and inclusive place-based development and investment”.

NESC’s call for the establishment of a social dialogue and deliberative process, which should be framed in the wider context of discussions with regard to how we embed the just economy and society might prove to be an effective method of achieving the social cohesion that will be required to face these challenges. It is clear that such an approach may be urgently needed and it seems to be desired by the citizenry.

Successful crisis management is, as we have come to learn, no guarantee of durable reform. We therefore must embed the hard-earned wisdom from the COVID-19 crisis into strong scholarly work, policy and institutional frameworks—this is the great challenge from a political-economy perspective. It will require, as NESC identifies, determined action across the public, voluntary and private sectors setting out priority actions, the sequence of interventions and timeframes for implementation, as well as consideration of what resources are needed to meet this challenge of economic and societal transformation. Critically, public spending must be viewed as an investment in both society and the economy, not a cost or a burden.

There is already widely held agreement now on the necessity of public spending, and of a fundamentally new, socially, economically and ecologically sustainable approach to our future. This document is surely an invaluable departure point for deliberative dialogue on how we can best do this with the most favourable outcome for all. We have reason to be grateful to the participants in NESC and, above all, to the engaged scholars who have given us such a fine framework for discussion and action.