Journeys through Northern Irish Co-operatives

Journeys through Northern Irish Co-operatives are blogs that we have written in collaboration with emerging co-operatives in the region. We asked them to tell us their stories.

However, before we start let us introduce what are co-operatives:

What are co-operatives?

Every co-operative in the world started from the same place: a group of like minded people who identified a business need or opportunity and came together to try and fulfil it.

There are over 214 independent co-operatives in the Northern Ireland, in accordance with our most recent research. 145 are credit unions while the remaining 69 comprises well established and emerging co-operatives. Co-operatives have had a long and important history in Northern Ireland – from the credit union movement to the long established agricultural co-ops. Now there is a new wave of co-operatives forming at an increased pace. In the current economic environment, forming a co-operative can empower communities to provide much needed products and services.

Co-operatives exist to serve their members, whether they are the customers, the employees or the local community. Because they do not need to bring benefits to outside shareholders, co-operatives can focus on making sure that members get the best service. Many groups are forming co-operatives because they present a fairer, more just and ethical ay to trade. Other choose the co-operative way because it offers communities the chance to collectively ‘buy into’ a project to help develop their local area.

What’s more, these members are the owners, with an equal say in what the co-operative does. So, as well as getting the products and services they need, members shape the decisions their co-operative makes.

In the past years, Co-operative Alternatives have made great strides in energising local groups and individuals to come together and create new co-operatives in new sectors such as renewable energy. leisure and sports, community building and housing, creative industries and craft and artisan food and drink.

Types and Models

Co-operatives are flexible with different forms for different types of members. The choice of model will depend on your members and how you engage with them.

For instance, if you are a smaller co-operative and your primary focus is your co-workers, a worker co-operative may be the best form of business. If your members are primarily your customers, you can form a consumer co-operative.  A geographical community or people with common interests come together to form a community benefit society (BenCom). These are enterprises that are owned and controlled by people belonging to a particular community. Normally they will carry out the activities that are of benefit to a defined community.

The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) Statement on the Co-operative Identity describes a co-operative as ‘an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise’. All co-operative organisations operate under the ICA co-operative values and principles.

Co-operative can have many different legal forms and be used to create an organisation which falls within this ICA definition. One of the key features is usually ‘one member one vote’.

However, Community benefit societies (also known as ‘BenCom’) and co-operative societies (also known as ‘bona fide co-operative’) are the two main legal structures that can be incorporate under the Co-operative and Community Benefit Society Act (1969) Northern Ireland. The difference between the two is in the stakeholder groups that the society is set up to benefit. A co-operative is set up to benefit its members, whereas a community benefit society is set up to benefit the community more widely, whether people are members or not.

The governing document is called “Rules” and “Model Rules”, standard form of same, are available from sponsoring bodies. Co-operative Alternatives can access many sponsoring bodies and can advise you which Rules better fit your type of co-operative. The registration is carried out by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and we can support through that process. For further information, contact us on 07858 317 634 or by email