Over 30 organisations from across Northern Ireland met Assembly members at a Stormont event to promote the co-operative sector.
The What a co-operative looks like event, which highlighted the impact and diversity of the sector in an effort to gain political support, was organised by Social Enterprise NI in partnership with Co-operative Alternatives. It was hosted by the Stormont all-party group on social enterprises and co‑operatives.
Tiziana O’Hara from Co-operative Alternatives said: “We feel that government can play a bigger role in supporting co-operatives.
“We want them to know what has been achieved by individuals working together with a common aim. There are so many unique and vibrant organisations that make up our sector and we want to show the impact that co-operatives have on local communities, the jobs they create and the wealth they can generate.”
Based in Belfast, Co-operative Alternatives works to develop and support a strong co-op movement across the island of Ireland. It provides advice on legal, financial, business and democratic governance.
Ms O’Hara added: “This was an opportunity for co-operatives to enter into a conversation with our political representatives and decision makers about the unique role that all co-operatives have in the building a fairer and more equal society on this island – as well as the issues they face in their development and growth.”
Colin Jess, director of Social Enterprise NI, thinks there is a growing interest in the social enterprise and co-operatives business model in NI.
“Private sector, public sector and politicians are seeking to obtain a greater understanding of how they can work with our members in doing their part in rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy,” he said.
“The co-operative business model can add value and it is great to see this event taking place and the interest and support being shown by local politicians and business leaders.”
The session heard contributions from various sectors, including large and small agricultural co-ops, credit unions, worker-owned and environmental co-ops.
Representative also seized the chance to highlight the challenges faced by co-ops in NI.
Karen Arbuckle, chair of Co-operative Alternatives and a director of Northern Ireland Community Energy, a solar co-op, called for a “clear energy strategy” from the Stormont Executive.
Her co-op has managed to raise £215,000 through community shares but she warned the sector faced uncertainty.
“While the Stormont Executive has stated its support for community energy, until a clear energy strategy is published there are many uncertainties regarding the future price of energy and the level of support if any available for community schemes,” she said.
“This lack of support for community energy is indicative of the apathetic attitude of our politicians towards the Co-operative Movement.
“This is why events like this are so important in raising awareness and showing our elected representatives the important role that Co-operatives play in the local economy.”