Study Tour

Co-op Study Tour and public meeting hailed a great success

Tiziana O’Hara and Jo Bird the driving forces behind Co-operative Alternatives organised a very successful Study Tour of Northern Ireland Co-ops plus an international discussion on Co-op responses to Austerity as part of the all-Ireland Co-operative Convergence Festival.

On Tuesday October 20 a group of people interested in exploring the co-operative model were taken on a half day tour to see the work of the Northern Ireland Community Energy society, the Belfast Cleaning Co-operative, the Credit Union for Teachers in Northern Ireland in Finaghy Road South and the Creative Workers Co-operative in King Street.

Those taking part on the study tour included Anne Ford, from the Northern Ireland Community Energy (NICE), whose successful community share offer was supported by the Community Shares, ready! programme commissioned by the Building Change Trust and delivered by Co-operative Alternatives.

During the visit Anne Ford showed the PV solar panels installed on the Ashton Centre , explained the aims of NICE, adding that the centre was one of the 13 community and voluntary groups that her co-operative has worked with as part of its mission to encourage the use of more green energy.

The reaction to the study tour was very positive from those who took part, including Dr Alastair Herron from Ulster University’s School of Art, who believes that it is a model that could be adopted by graduates looking at career choices after they have completed their studies.

He said: “The tour was excellent and very informative. It is great to see local co-operatives developing and people being empowered to take control of their own employment in a creative and inventive manner. Graduate employability is a key factor in the mission statement of Ulster University and we are very keen to look at workable and sustainable models.”

Eleftheria Papamichali travelled from Dublin to take the tour and speak during the evening discussion after seeing it on the Co-operative Convergence Festival itinerary. She is based at the Irish Development Education, where she is working on the Challenging the Crisis project – aimed at engaging young people from countries most affected by austerity – Portugal, Greece, Italy, Spain, Slovenia and Ireland.

She said: “I found the tour very interesting because it gave me the opportunity to meet with people engaged in the social solidarity economy and how it works in practice. We think there is a natural synergy between what we are trying to achieve with our campaign and the co-operative movement. The co-operatives I saw today, are a very good example of a social solidarity economy. I really enjoyed visit all of them, they all come across passionate about what they do.”

Fergal O’Donnell of the Rural Community Network has attended a number of workshops run by Co-operative Alternatives and wanted to find out how the theory was put into practice.

“This was an opportunity to see four or five very different community projects in action and be able to engage them in a Q&A. I thought the Belfast Cleaning Co-operative was very interesting in that it really brought home to me the idea of equity in terms of employment – everybody being on the same level,” he said.

Tiziana O’Hara said the study tour had been very worthwhile: “The demand for places on the study tour shows the increasing interest in co-operatives in Northern Ireland. There are more and more new co-operatives and community benefit societies operating here and lots of people are interested in finding out how they work, how they started and most of all, they want to talk to the people involved in them. ”

The tour was followed by a public meeting chaired by Jo Bird, discussing Co-operative Responses to Austerity featuring via Skype, Alberto Grolla from the D&C Modelleria Co-op in Italy, Mike Shaw from Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative and Vanessa Hammond, Chair of the Health Care Co-operatives Federation of Canada. Eleftheria Papamichali from Challenging the Crisis also contributed to the discussion.

Alberto Grolla talked about the events of 2010, when 12 workers took over their bankrupt factory, D&C Modelleria in Italy and transformed a failing business into a profitable co-operative co-owned by its workers. .

Eleftheria Papamichali then gave details of Challenging the Crisis which aims to put the Social and Solidarity Economy on the political and economic agenda.

Mike Shaw spoke about how the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op was set up to provide quality, affordable student controlled accommodation for over 100 student members.