Northern Ireland’s co-operative sector could be on a par with England, Scotland and Wales if there was the political will to promote and develop it.
That’s the view of Karen Arbuckle, the new chair of Co-operative Alternatives, Northern Ireland’s only dedicated co-operative development agency.
Karen feels improved understanding and awareness of the power of co-operatives is essential to the growth of the sector within Northern Ireland, which lags behind England, Scotland and Wales.
“Generally there is still a lack of understanding of the co-operative model and the benefits it can provide to members and to the community,” she said. “We have been lobbying the Northern Ireland Assembly and local councils but we have considerable work to do to really get the support and recognition of the scope and opportunities for co-operative development.
“Locally, people have embraced the idea of social enterprise but we need to continue to work towards a more humanised economy in which the co-operative model is more widely used, and where communities and public interest are at the core, social benefits are direct and profit is fairly distributed and reinvested locally.”
She added: “There have been a number of really successful share offers in Northern Ireland and I think this demonstrates the public support and willingness to engage with co-operatives and for local people to invest in the future of their community.”
Co-operative Alternatives offers advice on legal, financial, business and democratic governance, as well as training and business support, to all groups that want to set up co-operatives. It has also delivered the Building Change Trust’s Community Shares, Ready project, which has been helping co-operatives raise finance through share offers since 2013.
The organisation has one highly active staff member, Tiziana O’Hara, and a number of contracted consultants.
Karen has a long history with co-operatives as her family farm has been part of a very large agri co-op for many years. She came to realise the full potential for co-operative development in 2010, when she became involved in the Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative, which operates a series of wind turbines in Northern Ireland.
She and her husband had been hoping to put a wind turbine on their farm, but found the cost prohibitive.
But when they learned about the new co-op – backed by community energy organisation Energy 4 All – they agreed to lease land on their farm for a turbine and became active members.
“The way members are engaged in a co-operative was exciting to me,” said Karen. “It’s about becoming an active member rather than a passive investor. You are part of something bigger and work together to make things happen.”
Karen became increasingly involved in Drumlin, playing a crucial role in marketing a share offer that raised £3.9m for the development of six wind turbines in Northern Ireland. This was the first time community shares were introduced in the region.
She went on to become involved with Northern Ireland Community Energy (NICE), a solar energy co-operative which places panels on the buildings of charities and other third-sector groups so they can benefit from cheaper electricity. NICE has held two community share offers and is now planning further installations.
Co-operative Alternatives has supported both of NICE’s recent share offers through the Community Shares, Ready project.
“All of the co-operatives we support and assist have to put forward a sound and viable business proposal,” she said, “but the ethos of a community benefit society is that this profit will go back to the members and the community.
“This is the message we need to promote and I feel that by demonstrating these success stories we will be able to show what can be done.”
Having worked as a human resources manager for a health trust for 21 years, Karen hopes to use her people skills to lobby politicians and community leaders about the benefits of co-operatives.
“I’m a people person and my work with co-operatives is all about connecting with people,” she added.
“I think that’s what drew me to Co-operative Alternatives originally. Tiziana O’Hara has such a strong passion for the movement and much of our success has come from developing that connection with the Northern Ireland people.
“I firmly believe there is a desire here for people to work together and improve their communities by setting up enterprises that are by local people, for local people.”
Tiziana O’Hara from Co-operative Alternatives welcomed Karen’s appointment and thanked out-going chair Jo Bird for her hard work and dedication over the past year.
“We have achieved so much over the years and we are looking forward to new work and exciting developments in the coming year,” she said.