The formation of a new Irish government after the general election in February is nearly upon us. As I write, the historic decision for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to work in a formal coalition – perhaps supported by the Greens – appears likely.
Leaving aside the various obstacles to be negotiated, here we look at one aspect of social and economic policy that might provide some basis on which these parties, and other elected representatives, can find common cause – co-operation. The challenges facing the next government in light of Covid-19 are going to require radical thinking and a new approach to the economy. Co-ops have a key part to play in ensuring any new social and economic settlement is equitable and inclusive.
The local rootedness of co-op and credit unions across constituencies has meant shrewd politicians of all stripes have sought to associate themselves with them. But this support rarely extends into placing the co-op sector at the heart of any legislative plan for government.
Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour, Greens, and many of the other groupings have included some co-op-focused policies in their previous manifestos. Below, I outline some of the promises made by different parties in the 2020 manifestos. These policies provide some basis for a discernible platform of co-operative approaches to key challenges – such as reversing rural decline and building a sustainable, locally oriented economy. Irish co-operators should use these promises as a way to scrutinise the future government’s record.
Fianna Fáil are unused to being out of office for so long. Their fall from power in 2011 in the wake of the Great Recession feels a lifetime ago and it is fair to say they are hungry for power. With a support base largely concentrated in rural Ireland, a suite of co-operative policies makes sense. The most eye-catching promise made by Fianna Fáil relates to the establishment of a community investment fund to empower local groups to take control of local assets. The potential loss of pubs, halls, swimming pools and football pitches can be devastating to a local community. Fianna Fáil have promised to earmark a €15m (£13.4m) fund to give communities the opportunity ‘to buy and operate these assets as a co-operative’.
This model of arresting rural decline and maintaining precious community assets through the co-op model is not new to Ireland and has been very successful in many parts of the UK where rural communities were under similar pressures.
The proposal is to be welcomed by co-operators, although the funds available are rather modest. The current pandemic means more local assets may struggle to reopen, making a policy like this even more important. Therefore, a more robust approach and more financial support to guarantee the successful functioning of this community buyback scheme would be welcome.
Disappointingly, the Fine Gael manifesto is near silent on the issue of co-operatives. The one mention it gives to the co-operative sector relates to money they have already allocated to the Tourism Ireland Regional Cooperative Marketing Fund. Elsewhere, reference is made to encouraging the establishment of more producer organisations, but no specific detail is made to the form of business organisations they have in mind. This can be contrasted with a commitment made in its 2016 manifesto to support ‘the emerging energy co-operative movement’. A resuscitation
of this older policy would be a start.
The largest winner in terms of vote from the 2020 election were Sinn Féin. From a co-operator’s perspective the manifesto contained interesting policy ideas. In brief, they can be boiled down to the establishment of Co-operative Development Agencies providing expertise and capital.
First, Sinn Féin promise to establish a Worker Co-operative Development Unit modelled on the existing Scottish agency. This would provide capital and technical assistance to existing and prospective worker co-ops and businesses looking to convert.
Tapping into the desire held by many voters for a more sustainable economy, Sinn Féin also proposed the co-op model as one way for farmers to access supplemental income while transitioning away from more traditional farming practices. Sinn Féin state they will work to provide those supports in consultation with farm organisations, local communities, and its new Co-operative Development Unit.
This might seem like a radical departure for those less attuned to the role of co-operative development in the Irish economy. It is worth mentioning that up until the turn of the century a Co-operative Development Unit existed as an agency within what is now the Department of Enterprise and Innovation, and would appear to have been disbanded in favour of the state’s strategic decision to focus on foreign direct investment rather than indigenous enterprise.
Brief mention is also made of using the co-op sector to enhance the work of local authorities on public housing. Sinn Féin are unlikely to form part of the next government. However, the likelihood of wielding power in the future has increased.
Co-operative policies are woven through the Green Party’s manifesto, clearly linking action on climate with building a fair and more distributive economy. On the need for a fast-paced energy transition, the party aims to use co-op methods to promote local renewable energy ownership.
A National Community Energy Strategy is promised to continue the work on updating Ireland’s co-op legislation and aid local energy projects. And they would introduce new micro-financial supports for individuals and co-ops to allow all residents to feed renewable energy into the grid.
Co-operative business receives its own section in the manifesto and contains a serious and detailed policy offer. Like Sinn Féin the Greens proclaim an interest in helping businesses transition into the ownership of employees and stakeholders. Their policy includes allowing current shareholders to pass an ordinary resolution to issue new share capital of a value up to 12.5% of a company’s net profits. These shares must be assigned to a co-op established by the company. Existing shares may be sold or gifted to the company co-op at any time without incurring capital gains tax liability on part of the seller, nor gift tax liability on behalf of the receiver. Moreover, a proposed public banking system for SMEs will be provided to the co-ops to finance further share purchases.
PBP’s manifesto featured some co-operative content. This included an alignment of primary care to a community-based system of social care. This is a recognition of the shortcomings attached to privatisation when it comes to safeguarding the nation’s health. Care is a sector largely defined by low pay and largely staffed by undervalued workers. While unlikely to feature in any Irish government in the near future, PBP have identified an important social space for co-operators to think seriously about – indeed this is already the case with regards to the work of the Great Care Co-op.
The manifesto also has a vague commitment to promote co-op models of farm ownership.
Not much included. They recognise the role of co-ops in developing Irish industry and believe the state has a role to play in promoting co-op and group insurance.
There was no mention whatsoever of co-op enterprise. A disappointing feature of manifestos from parties that broadly define as social democratic or democratic socialist is the lack of political vision around the co-operative economy. It is this author’s belief that a serious intellectual development by left parties on this issue is required – particularly if they want to display relevance and the credentials required to build a resilient and fair society based on economic democracy.