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Associations, Deliberation and Democracy: The Case of Ireland''s Social Partnership

Open Panel

Abstract

Over the past two decades there has been a burgeoning interest and research into local and nationally based partnerships. While advocates highlight their merits in moving beyond traditional interest group representations and deepening democracy through deliberation with a broad range of civic associations, critics express concern about the political legitimacy and democratic accountability of these associations, highlighting in particular the danger of faction. Addressing these concerns, a number of theorists (Cohen and Rogers; Mansbridge; Hendriks) highlight the importance of civic associations'' role in linking deliberations at micro policy levels to those within the public sphere more broadly. These normative contributions raise an important empirical question - does civic associational engagement at micro levels leave scope to engage both laterally across associations and vertically with members and citizens more broadly? More simply put, is civic associational engagement within micro-policy fora ''good'' for democracy? Drawing from a study of civic associational engagement in Ireland’s national Social Partnership process over a ten year period this paper argues that, under conditions where more traditional communicative norms of bargaining and negotiation prevail (as they often do), it is not. Evidence is presented from the Irish case to show how civic actors, having internalised the dominant communicative norms of the process, have narrowed the deliberative space both within, but most particularly, outside this process. This has resulted in a fragmentation of civil society together with a considerably weakened public sphere with neither the institutional apparatus nor the discursive capacity to seek accountability from political and civic leaders at a time of profound economic and political crisis.