Q&A: Jerry Long

President, Irish Cooperative Organisation Society (ICOS)

How was 2020 for the co-op sector in Ireland?

2020 has been a challenging year for co-operatives in Ireland, as it has been for business across the world. Irish co-operatives spent 2020 navigating their way through the challenges of Brexit preparations, the fight against climate change and of course Covid-19 – and, as a representative body to so many co-operatives, we had to find creative and sustainable ways of dealing with those issues. Responding to the Coronavirus pandamic, we were thrown into a crisis of enormous proportions. Both ourselves and our members needed to rapidly adapt to new ways to work and engage with our members and consumers and to the changing market environment. However, these challenges served to emphasise the resilience and adaptability of the co-operative model in Ireland, as it continues to deliver for its members whilst remaining competitive and efficient in difficult times. 

What was the sector’s role in supporting members and communities through the Covid-19 crisis?

During the Covid-19 crisis it was critical that co-ops were able to ascertain accurate and relevant information on their public health compliance responsibilities; available government supports in relation to business continuity and wage subsidisation; and options available to co-operatives regarding their reporting responsibilities (annual return & AGM etc.). ICOS generated a comprehensive, user-friendly suite of support documents covering these issues. The schemes and issues in question were subject to frequent and significant change and ICOS ensured co-operatives were kept up to date at every stage over the past number of months.

How did co-ops in Ireland innovate in 2020?

Our co-operative Livestock Auction Markets showed great capacity to innovate when moving to online livestock sales in order to maintain this vital element of the supply chain while complying with public health restrictions. Equally we saw cooperatives across the country adopting new voting technology and moving online for the first time for their Annual General Meetings. 

Our dairy cooperatives too continue to develop and invest in alternative processing facilitates in order to diversify their businesses away from the UK market in light of expected new trading difficulties post-Brexit and at the same time are investing more and more in climate and environmental initiatives, in the circular and bioeconomy, in response to new regulation and commitment under the European Green Deal and increasing consumer expectations. 

How do you see the year ahead – what are the main challenges and opportunities?

As the Irish and global economies enter into severe recession, with an unknown long-term impact on our supply chains, or demand for our produce, we will have to work harder than ever to ensure our competitiveness, and the sustainability and resilience of our businesses. Additionally, Ireland and in particular the Irish agri-food sector and rural businesses are highly exposed to impact of the UK’s departure from the EU Single Market and Customs Union in the new year. Deal or no deal, this will bring substantial cost and new challenges. We continue to look for the opportunity in these events, in terms of product and market diversification, but there is no doubt they will be transformative for rural Ireland. 

While the challenges posed by climate change are significant, it offers also opportunities which our members continue to discover and develop in the areas of renewable energy, bio-based inputs, digital transformation and circularity and waste reduction. These are necessary areas to explore and build upon over the coming years, if we are to deal with the additional challenge of generational renewal within agriculture and therefore also within our cooperative businesses. In ICOS, we at all times have to be mindful of the viability of the industries that we represent and therefore we are working with our members to implement action for the viability of our natural environmental upon which our industries depend. 

What changes would ICOS like to see in 2021?

The Irish government is working on amending the governing legislation for co-operatives in Ireland which should be finalised in 2021 and which we hope will enabled modernisation of certain areas of governance. For example, new ideas including statutory clarity on the ability of a co-operative to access modern finance streams, electronic methods of communication and derogations from auditing of financial statements do need to be explored so that co-operatives and their members can prosper.

We also anticipating the introduction of new legislation national on promoting a fairer food chain while at the same time work gets under way in Brussels on implementing the Farm to Fork strategy, which commits to improving market transparency and ensuring that farmers get paid for sustainability actions. We hope that through these changes we can promote the principles of value sharing and create a market value for environmental protection, within our domestic, EU and international food chain in support our or members actions and viability. 

Finally, ICOS and the Irish co-operative sector worked hard to spread the news about the co-operative model to new sectors of the economy. We’ve continued to reach outside of our traditional rural heartland, into urban communities, to foster and develop new co-operatives in tourism, technology and new media and are achieving good success in these areas.  These sectors share much in common with our traditional farming base; individual sole traders and small businesses, trying to achieve scale and efficiency to sell their goods or services in an increasingly globalised world.  We will continue to invest in this area as we strongly believe that in our change business environment, the cooperative model can find new ground, in these industries, but also sectors such as childcare, nursing homes and medical practitioners. 

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