Article below published in the Nenagh Guardian on Wednesday 22nd April 2009
One of the constant refrains we hear from politicians and others at the moment is the need to stand together, to share the burden of economic problems and to be united in our efforts to beat the Credit Crunch. We also hear calls for patriotic action – to put the needs of the whole people before our own.
Cynicism apart this is all good advice. We are in a very difficult situation, partly of our own making and partly the result of global economic policies and practices that this writer does not even begin to understand. Such a crisis demands united and focused action.
The question which I keep asking myself is this: Are we capable of doing this? Are we capable of acting cohesively and effectively as a nation? The eternal optimist will point to how we dragged ourselves up by our bootstraps out of the recession of the eighties to become the ‘Celtic Tiger’ economy, but we now know that so called ‘economic miracle’ was built on a lie, the un-burstable bubble of property development. Not forgetting there were many who never experienced even the short term prosperity it brought, so there is no reason to believe we have the ability to rise to this challenge.
A funny sentiment you might say for a Christian priest to express – after all shouldn’t I be talking about hope and the possibility of better things. Perhaps so, but it is out of the Christian context that I express my doubts. I feel that we as a nation are lacking something fundamental, without which all our attempts to overcome the current economic challenge will come to naught! And before you say it – no I am not going to say something as simplistic as ‘Jesus is the answer’ but I would suggest that Jesus has the answer and had it some 2000 years ago!
What I am referring to is his recasting the Law in terms of Love – turning external prescriptions into something internal and relational. One of the qualities identified with this notion of Love is trust. What I think we lack today is ‘Trust’! We have legislated it almost out of existence. Everything we do is wrapped up in increasingly legalistic frameworks which are in a constant state of revision as we try in vain to cope with the pace of change in our lives. Once the last port of call in a dispute, the law is now the first place people turn and even the churches are going down this road. Make no mistake, law is essential to ensure justice and stability in society but law on its own cannot sustain a healthy society. We also need trust which builds community and brings people together. Good law gives space for trust; bad law destroys it!
The best and consequently worst example of this in Ireland today is in the area of labour relations. There is a growing breakdown of trust between employers and employees which is exacerbated not improved by our labour laws. I have to confess an interest in this issue being the spouse of a small to medium employer but I am not so blind as to suggest that the fault lies exclusively with one side or the other. It is systemic and deeply engrained in our structures. The very fact that I talk about ‘sides’ is indicative of the all too common adversarial nature of employer/employee relations. This has to change if our nation is to be able to respond with any degree of unity to the current crisis.
The workplace is so heavily and unevenly legislated that there is no space for trust and a sense of shared responsibility to develop between employers and employees. Things are bad when a trade union feels it has to recommend rejection of a deal to save hundreds of jobs when the likely outcome is the closure of the firm. That happened this very week in Ireland and not for the first time!
Our exclusively rights based labour laws are serving neither employer nor employee well. They cause resentment of staff by employers who spend huge amounts of time and money in order to be compliant with a code which seems to ignore the rights of employers, and they do nothing to give the employee a sense of responsibility for and partnership in the company for which they work. This makes for an unfulfilling working environment for the employee who is only there to pay the bills. What results is a culture of ‘them and us’ and that is at the root of much of our ongoing labour relations difficulties. There is no room for local bargaining any more – Labour relations are controlled by an inconsistent external body which effectively undermines the possibility of constructive employer/employee relations in the workplace.
Until this systemic failure is addressed we have no hope of standing together as a nation. No amount of legislation is a substitute for trust, and trust in one another is essential if we are to bear the pain that is promised. Jesus had it right!