Northern Ireland’s Co-operative Policy School

Portrush on Northern Ireland’s most northerly coast was not the most hospitable of places during the cold winds of the ‘Beast from the East’, yet the Northern Ireland Co-operative Party’s weekend policy school was well attended – despite some journeys being literally derailed.   (The Enterprise rail service from Dublin to Belfast was suspended and flights from Britain grounded.)


Vivien Woodell was the main speaker, providing inspiration for future co-operative development from his experience as a non-executive director of the Mid-Counties Co-op and founder of the Phone Co-op.   Created in 1998, the Phone Co-op has been one of the UK’s fastest growing and most successful co-operatives.  Its achievements created a strong asset base to support and invest in other co-operatives, including student housing co-ops.  Vivien’s main activity now is through the Phone Co-operative Foundation.


“The Rochdale pioneers were very innovative,” explained Woodell, “yet we don’t often hear about co-operatives being innovative.”  The aim of the Foundation is to help rebuild that innovative spirit in the co-op sector.  “The Phone Co-op has benefited from being part of a movement: the Foundation is taking that to another level,” he said.  “We want to make it easier for co-ops to start and grow.”  Identified opportunities for Foundation support include a secondary co-op for student housing co-ops; online platform co-ops; co-operation within the gig economy; social care; community transport support; and international replication of the Phone Co-op model.


Titziana O’Hare of Co-operative Alternatives, Northern Ireland’s co-operative development agency, explained: “We have a vision of a strong local co-operative movement, connected to the global co-operative movement.”  It is assisted financially through the Building Change Trust’s Community Share Programme and by councils’ support in Belfast and Lisburn.  Co-operative Alternatives has supported the setting-up of 18 co-operatives and eight share offers by co-operatives.


O’Hare added that there is “a lack of political champions” for co-ops in Northern Ireland.  But, she claimed, co-ops are a form of organisation that operate beyond the religious and political divide.  “Everyone likes co-operatives – unionists and nationalists.  They can be unifying.”


Tom Copeland travelled from Scotland, where he is community engagement officer for the Co-operative Group for Northern Ireland as well as Scotland.  He described the financial support available from the Group for charitable objectives, some of which may be available for co-operative projects.  Those attending the session urged the Group to strengthen its financial support for the co-operative sector.  Tom also explained that with the Group winning the contract to supply the Costcutter and Mace grocery chains, and – subject to competition approval – taking over Nisa, it has become financially viable to open more branded Co-op stores in Northern Ireland.


Much of the conference considered the crisis in the provision of social and private housing across the island of Ireland.  Symptoms include the number of mortgaged properties being repossessed in the Republic and the risk of a fire tragedy in Northern Ireland, as a result of the widespread use of cladding similar to that used on Grenfell Tower.   The failure of the tenant management organisation responsible for Grenfell Tower to properly represent the interests of tenants, or be accountable to them, was also discussed.


Tom Woolley, a former professor of architecture at Queen’s University Belfast, explained there are 500 tower blocks across the UK with dangerous cladding, which will cost around £20m each to put right.  To do so requires substantial government funding.  Woolley added that improvement work in Scotland of properties transferred to housing co-operatives was of a substantially higher standard than was the case at Grenfell Tower.


Andrew McMurray led the successful Drumlin Wind Co-operative and is now engaged in promoting Co-Housing Northern Ireland.  Co-housing involves communities in which some facilities are shared – such as spare bedrooms.  Sharing facilities can strengthen neighbourhood bonds, while reducing costs.  The co-housing movement began in Denmark, where they are now responsible for around 8% of homes.  Many British co-housing schemes are registered as co-operatives.


Several members of Ireland’s Rights to Homes Group attended.  They explained the purpose behind the National Housing Co-operative Bill, which is under consideration by the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament).  It seeks to protect mortgaged homeowners from property repossession and end the role of ‘vulture funds’ in Ireland.  (Vulture funds are investment funds that buy distressed property debt at substantial discount, realising profits typically through property repossessions and resale.  The vulture funds were granted tax-free status by the Irish government to encourage their activities.)


Seamus Maye from the Group explained that, if approved, the Bill could lead to 37,000 homes transferring into co-operative housing.  There is growing support behind the Bill, with politicians in the major Irish parties indicating support for it and some financial institutions, including United States pension funds, interested.   As yet, there is no finalised structure for how the co-operative would work, but the intention is that every homeowner/mortgage borrower affected would or could become a member of the co-operative.  “The Bill is aspirational,” explained the Group’s Brian Reilly.


Credit unions might have played a role in resolving this crisis, were they allowed to.  But credit union regulators in both the Republic of Ireland and the UK are imposing restrictions on the type of investment and deposits that credit unions are permitted.  “There are €18bn of deposits held by Republic of Ireland credit unions which they are not allowed to lend and which is propping-up the pillar [main lending] banks,” complained Jerry Beades of the Group.


The point was echoed by Kevin Helferty of the Irish League of Credit Unions, who added that the regulatory restrictions also mean there is no opportunity for credit unions to invest for growth.  Helferty explained how the Republic’s credit unions are, though, making personal microcredit loans, protecting borrowers from loan sharks.  “Money lenders are greedy, friendly, speedy and tempting,” said Kevin.  Under the microcredit scheme, there have been over 12,000 loans issued, totalling over €750,000, with only a 4% default rate.  Loan terms are for a maximum of €2,000, repayable over two years.


Harry McDaid, chief executive of UCIT, the Ulster Community Investment Trust, explained how his fund can support community and co-operative initiatives, including through its micro-finance fund and working in partnership with other ethical funds.  “We are perfectly happy to carve-out a portion of our capital for co-operatives,” he stressed.
The after dinner speaker on the second evening was Dr Russell Rees, who has researched the approach of the 1945-51 Labour government to ‘the Northern Ireland problem’. Although Labour was not sympathetic to the Unionist Party and its sectarianism, Dr Rees said that Labour in government failed to impose a trade-off between unionists’ demand for extra funding, with the need for greater social equality.  Was this, he asked, a missed opportunity that might have prevented the later strife and the deaths of more than 3,000 people?  “Was the Labour government generous or myopic?”, he wondered.  Labour Party policy towards Northern Ireland remains ambivalent and local members are not permitted to stand candidates in elections.


Following the success of the policy school, the next task is to convert the ideas put forward into a political manifesto for the Co-operative Party in Northern Ireland – to influence the policies of all the electoral parties in the region.

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