Northern Ireland’s small and medium businesses must work together if they are to economically succeed in the post-Brexit climate, according to one of the UK’s leading experts on the co-operative movement.
Ed Mayo, general secretary of Co-operatives UK, told an audience of co-operative members and supporters in Belfast that the only way that NI businesses can succeed in a global market, increasing exports and taking on larger companies was by coming together to maximise their resources.
He said: “If you are thinking about post-Brexit strategies then co-operation among small businesses has got to be one of the greatest areas of opportunity for Northern Ireland.
“There are changes coming in Northern Ireland that make it vital that co-operatives and their partners have their voice heard in terms of economic development to meet the needs of the sector.
“Northern Ireland ranks high in terms of co-operative values. Whenever you have co-ops working and generating economic value to a region it drives greater equality and participation and is a model of an inclusive economy.”
Mr Mayo was speaking at ‘Co-operatives Can Do, Must Do, Will Do,’ organised by Co-operative Alternatives, showcasing the contribution that co-ops make to the NI economy and looking at the challenges ahead on job creation and community cohesion.
The seminar also involved contributions from the Department for the Economy and Belfast City Council’s Economic Development Unit, which are working much more closely with the co-operative sector.
His view was supported by Keith Forster from the Department for the Economy’s Strategic Policy Division, who said that Northern Ireland was entering unchartered waters in terms of Brexit and was rethinking its economic policy.
Mr Forster said co-ops would have an important role to play in Northern Ireland’s economic future.
“Inclusivity and encouraging collaboration is a prominent feature of our industrial strategy,” he said. “We need to broaden our approach. We need companies to invest in research and development. I think it will require significant collaboration and co-operation to drive economic growth across the whole of Northern Ireland.”
Leah Thompson, Belfast City Council’s economic development officer, said the social enterprise and co-operative sectors will play an important role in the city plans to create jobs and improve living standards within the city.
“Increasing the number of co-ops can help address social issues, increase the quality of life and create sustainable employment,” she added.
Tiziana O’Hara of Co-operative Alternatives said the seminar had shown that government and local authorities were beginning to appreciate the important role that the co-operative movement plays in Northern Ireland.
She added: “It’s clear that the co-operative model which encourages collaboration will be vital if Northern Ireland is to compete on the global stage, post-Brexit. This seminar showed that we have a vibrant co-operative sector which is willing to play its part in creating a healthy, prosperous future.”