What the Vatican’s synodal process can learn from Ireland’s National Economic and Social Council

NESC’s experience as institution and process might provide food for thought and reflection as the synodal journey continues

It largely passed under the radar but an important piece of State architecture celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) was established to advise the government on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social and environmental development.

Operating under the taoiseach’s aegis, the council comprises senior representatives of the social partners, government departments and independent academic experts. The council’s reports, which are brought to government by the taoiseach, are based on a combination of expert analysis, discussion and deliberation between its members and the formulation of recommendations which take account of practical questions of implementation as well as key policy principles.

The reports typically deal with strategic questions in a longer timeframe than is often possible in routine political debate. As its best, the council has provided a fresh approach to the understanding of policy problems, opening up new policy options that offer scope to governments to move beyond current policies and practice.

The council’s influence has been significant on issues from the management of public debt in the 1980s to the strategic priorities for Ireland’s membership of the European Union, the role of a developmental welfare state and more recently, housing strategy and a just transition to a low-carbon economy.


Council members bring their experience and expertise to the table, but they are encouraged to leave their partisan priorities at the door. Respectful listening to contrasting points of view and a joint search for policies which serve the common good aim to bring the process beyond negotiation to a form of policy learning on behalf of society. Success is marked not only by impact on public policy but also on the attitudes and behaviour of the interests represented on the council itself, the members of which are important actors in their own right.

There hasn’t always been full agreement within the council on its policy recommendations. Members have at times found it difficult to hear around the table well-informed critiques of their own position. Officials representing government departments have at times found it difficult to share the policy advisory space with critics of current policy.

Yet the council’s method has often led members – and by extension public opinion – to better understanding and fresh approaches. The independence of the council does not take away from the fact that it exists in the shadow of hierarchy: it is established by the government, which sets its terms of reference and sometimes its agenda.

The council’s role is advisory and its authority rests on the quality of its analysis, drawing on the experience of its members. It is for the government to consider and determine whether and to what extent NESC recommendations become public policy. However, the process of engagement behind council reports prepares the ground for policymaking.

NESC is no substitute for robust democratic debate and electoral politics. It is no panacea for the fracturing of society and the rise of extremism. But it is a valuable resource for governance.

The synthesis report from the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome last October has posed challenges to the Catholic Church as to how best to read the signs of the times to discern God’s will for the church, drawing on the gifts of all the baptised. Some have received the outcome as disappointing (for not producing more concrete or radical change) or concerning (for giving voice to those who are critical of established positions or teaching).

The synthesis report points to the need for deeper engagement by theologians and canon lawyers to support the process of deliberation and discernment, as well as a renewal of prayer so that the Spirit may guide the baptised in the exercise of their particular roles and charisms. The synodal process has paid attention to the experience of synodality in history, among religious congregations, and in other church communities.

The NESC, in making space to foster participation and deliberation within the governance of the State, has made no claim to divine inspiration (even if at times it hopes for conversion, or at least a change of mind). Yet its experience as institution and process might provide food for thought and reflection as the synodal journey continues.

Dermot McCarthy was director (1990-1993) and chair (2000-2011) of the National Economic and Social Council. He is a permanent deacon in the archdiocese of Dublin