The World Credit Union Conference is underway in Belfast, bringing together representatives from 55 different countries. The opening ceremony featured introductions from credit union leaders, including Daniel Burns, first vice chair of the World Council of Credit Unions (Woccu).
“We all share the co-operative DNA, that’s what brings us together,” he said, welcoming delegates to Northern Ireland.
Anne Cochran, chair of Woccu talked about some of the challenges faced by credit unions, such as technological advancements. “Together there are no obstacles we can’t overcome,” she said. She gave the example of British credit unions working with credit unions in Georgia – a mutual learning partnership that will benefit their members. “We exist for one purpose: to financially empower and enrich the needs of our members around the globe,” said Ms Cochran.
Minister of finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir was one of the special guests at the opening ceremony. He spoke of two aspects in particular which mark out the credit union movement as different: ambition and solidarity. “When a person joins a credit union, they are making a pledge that they want to do better,” he said. Mr Ó Muilleoir added that Irish credit unions inspire people and bring them together, helping to move the social landscape forward from the ‘peace process to the prosperity process’.
Brian McCrory, chair of the Irish League of Credit Unions, described the organisation as “unique”.
The league includes credit unions from two jurisdictions: the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. He explained how when the credit union movement started in Ireland 60 years ago, the economy was characterised by a lack of money. “Today in a world of globalisation and quantitative easing, what is lacking is trust,” he said. “Our greatest asset is the trust that our members hold and enjoy in credit unions. In Belfast, marked by division, we know the value of trust.”
Our diversity is our strength, we are a global movement that is an answer to globalisation
Mr McCrory explained how in “dark days” credit unions gave small loans that kept families together. Irish Credit Union League members have total assets of €14bn, average loans of €8,000 and three million individual members.
“Credit unions do not have all the answers for the roots of injustice and inequality, but we are part of the solution. Credit unions stand for trust, not as a slogan that is marketed but an ethos,” he said.
“Our diversity is our strength, we are a global movement that is an answer to globalisation. Every credit union in every part of the world is an essential part of their community. We are community activists and community leaders. The lesson of the credit union movement is solidarity that makes us stronger and reconciliation, that brings us closer.”
Marian Harkin, independent MEP for Ireland joined Mark Durkan, deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, in a debate on regulation and credit unions. She said that through their common bond credit unions help make a difference in their communities. “I can see that credit unions glue those communities together,” she said. She talked about the danger of placing an added burden on credit unions through excessive regulation.
“Politicians are now worried about moneylenders, but it was regulation that stopped credit unions lending money to those people in previous years,” she said.
Mr Durkan encouraged more “positive” and “constructive” conversations between credit unions and regulators to ensure that they are taken into account when regulations are designed. “Let the regulator know you’re very good at self-regulating, that should be supported, not undermined by regulators,” he told delegates. “We need to remember that, yes, regulation is important but what you do as credit unions is not just transactional, it’s transformational.”
Delegates also watched a video message sent by the Duchess of Cornwall, a passionate advocate of credit unions. She highlighted that credit unions served people, not profit and provided affordable loans to those who did not fit into the conventional banking system. “Nearly two million people do not have access to a bank account,” the Duchess said. “I believe that credit unions can help to change all of this.”