PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins attended the East Clare Co-op in Scariff on Thursday to officially mark the 25th birthday of the co-operative.
Quoting the United Nations secretary general, Ban-Ki-Moon, the President stressed to the large gathering, “Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility”.
The co-op was founded in September 1987 as the Coleen Bridge Co-operative with the aim of creating a Steiner-based primary school, which is now an independent initiative and is joined by a secondary school and a preschool.
A few years later, in 1991, long before others around the country, the East Clare Community Co-operative established itself as an independent co-operative with a focus on training, local capacity building and enterprise support for environmentally sustainable social and business initiatives.
In his address, President Higgins commended the board and members for developing and attracting a range of services to Scariff through the creation of this co-operative.
“Today, you can demonstrate the fruition of this work in services as varied as the support for families in the area, the innovative approaches you have to including the members of your community and in the strong linkages and common work you undertake with other agencies and organisations.
“You are to be congratulated for your foresight in those early years and for your fortitude over these 25 years, some of which, more recently, have been extremely challenging. The values of the co-operative movement are now critical in overcoming these difficult economic times and those in the co-operative movement can now be leaders in the economic and social transformation we are seeking,” he said.
Speaking about the challenges facing the country at this time of economic uncertainty, the President commented, “Clearly, we cannot go back to doing things in the same way as we did before. We need new models of working together that will transcend the shortcomings of our recent experience. It is, at face value, somewhat paradoxical but very hopeful and uplifting, that at a time of economic crisis and setback in national self-confidence that community-based initiatives such as the co-operative movement are growing in strength in terms of activity and citizen participation.”
He added that in the new social economy, the country will need models like the co-operative model, which encourages people to work together using their talents, to proactively participate and contribute in their community models constructed on the basis of collective welfare, which operate on the principles of solidarity, partnership and collaborative endeavour.
He said the success of the East Clare Co-operative is testament to the roles the co-operative movement has played and can play in our future in the development of key sectors and institutions in Ireland.
The co-op celebrates its 25th anniversary in the International Year of the Co-operative, as declared by the United Nations to draw attention to and encourage action on major issues and to raise public awareness of the invaluable contributions of co-operative enterprises to poverty reduction, employment generation and social integration.
“As you have displayed here in Scariff and East Clare, harnessing this potential has allowed you to address a number of social and quality of life issues such as those arising from long commutes, isolation and lack of community facilities. While today is about East Clare Community Co-operative, it is always useful to look back at where the co-operative movement originated in Ireland and mark its development, of which this celebration is part of today,” he said.
The President also spoke of the first co-operative, founded in 1831 on the estate of John Vandeleur at Ralahine, County Clare, and said while it was to end in failure after just two years of operation, it adds to the heritage of the co-operatives and their development.
He added that the challenges Ireland is wrestling with today are “not dissimilar in their extent or need of solution as those facing the people of Ralahine or farmers at the end of the 19th century”.
The President noted there are currently some 1,400 co-operatives active across the country, with the agricultural co-operatives forming the largest sector with a combined turnover in the region of €12 billion, with some 150,000 individual members, employing 12,000 people in Ireland and a further 24,000 people overseas (ICOS estimates).
“While the East Clare Community Co-operative does not operate on anything like these scales, I want to note that the essential elements of that co-operative spirit and approach guide your work to this day. You claim an inclusive approach is central to and underpins your work and that every person in the community is welcome to be part of what you do. Indeed, from the range of services you have brought to Scariff, it is clear that the board are constantly seeking opportunities and new partnerships, be they the counselling services that are provided with the support of the Family Support Agency, the bookshop and coffee room with the support of the community employment programme, or the other varied operations that are supported by the community services programme,” President Higgins said.
While at the East Clare Co-operative, the President was treated to a musical feast, with Paul Brown Community Music greeting him with a rendition of You are my Sunshine, followed by some traditional music with Denise Glass, Cliodhna Donnellan, Seamus Bugler, Terry Cronin and Eimear Moloney and songs by Catherine Patience’s choral group and the East Clare Community Choir.
The President was also treated to a poem written and read by local pupil, Leah Bell.
Before he departed to his next engagement at the Irish Seed Savers’ Association, President Higgins concluded that the community co-op’s vision, drive and tenacity have served their community well.