Asymmetric Engagement: The Community
and Voluntary Pillar in Irish
Social Partnership.
Joe Larragy
Manchester University Press


Book review by Niall Crowley.

Asymmetric Engagement’ by Joe Larragy has a title that would send you to sleep and a cover that is devoid of design, but is actually a good read, telling the story of four community organisations and their engagement in social partnership. Larragy sets out evidence from the experience of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU), the Community Workers Cooperative (CWC), CORI (now Social Justice Ireland), and the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) to assess their engagement in social partnership over the last two decades.
The increasingly accepted polemic on the Left is that this participation achieved little and merely resulted in incorporation by the state. The book gently and rather academically suggests that these claims “derive largely from aprioristic paradigms”. However you want to put it, it is amazing what a little bit of research can do. Larragy, a lecturer in social policy in NUI Maynooth, is the first to generate the evidence and analyse the record.
Asymmetric warfare describes patterns of conflict between small mobile groups of guerillas and the standing army of the state. Asymmetric engagement is used by Larragy to “describe patterns of engagement between small, mobile organisations and the political establishment and state bureaucracy on the civil front”. It is useful in placing power and power imbalances at the centre of the analysis of social partnership.
Community organisations are identified as being too small for symmetric engagement or bargaining, since they lack power. Larragy emphasises their policy entrepreneurship in terms of the knowledge they hold, the innovation they offer, and their tactical flexibility. Social partnership offered a channel to give expression to these strengths.
The influence of these organisations in social partnership is identified as fluctuating with shifts in the position and perspective of the electorate. “When a policy question becomes a major one for the electorate, the profile of small principled campaigning organisations can be heightened”. Headway was made in the early days of involvement in social partnership due to a leftward shift in the electorate. The campaigns of these organisations had a contribution to make in shaping the perspective of the electorate. Larragy identifies this campaigning work as another relevant characteristic of these organisations.
The analysis suggests that it “was difficult for independent campaigning organisations not to engage with social partnership once established”. It provided an opportunity to extend the range of tools deployed by these organisations in seeking societal change. The INOU, Larragy points out, “had pursued the protest route but this ultimately led them to engage in social partnership”. The CWC is identified as ambivalent to social partnership but keen to make use of the opportunities afforded. Social partnership did mark a shift from lobbying and protest to negotiation and engagement, but this was a decision based on an understanding of where progress could be made.
Noteworthy gains were made, even if the scope of such gains was inevitably limited. The INOU was able to pursue “a raft of very significant policy positions” on unemployment. CORI “had some remarkable success” in their approach to income maintenance. The NWCI secured progress on childcare, gender equality and, to a lesser extent, welfare reform. The CWC was a “force to lever resources for innovative projects” and focused on the alienation of marginalised communities from local government.
The book has lessons for today, a low point in the fortunes of the sector. A community and voluntary pillar for social partnership could not have been conceived outside of the circumstances of the mid 1990s, a period of economic crisis when the information about political corruption, that led to a number of wide-ranging tribunals, was surfacing.  These circumstances generated a crisis of legitimacy for the political elite. It would be useful to study how the current crisis of legitimacy resulted in coercion of, rather than engagement with, the sector but it appears the sector cannot call on public or political support as it did in the past.
The challenge is to rediscover these attributes outside of social partnership and to rebuild public support through campaigning. •

History of Social Partnership
1988-1990    Programme for National Recovery
1991-1993    Programme for Economic and
Social Progress
1993    Establishment of National Economic
and Social Forum that included a ‘Third Strand’ of community organisations
1994-1996    Programme for Competitiveness
and Work
1997    Community and Voluntary Pillar formed and admitted into social partnership
1997-1999    Partnership 2000
1998    Inclusion of Community and Voluntary
Pillar in the National Economic and
Social Council
2000-2002    Programme for Prosperity and Fairness
2003-2005    Sustaining Progress
2003    Some members of Community and
Voluntary Pillar refuse to sign the agreement and leave social partnership
2006-2007    Towards 2016
2006    Community and Voluntary Pillar
members who had left social partnership readmitted
2010    Closure of National Economic and
Social Forum