A group of people in the West of Ireland transformed their world. The prices they paid for animal feed, fertiliser and general supplies had risen too high and the price they were getting for milk and other produce was too low. They decided to form a co-operative. Within three years they were selling 251,000 gallons of milk, making 106,751 lbs. of butter, boosting their farm incomes and getting a 5 per cent dividend from the co-operative. I refer to the formation of Kiltoghert Co-operative in my home parish in Leitrim in 1901.
At that time inspirational women transformed the lives of countless generations. Through the United Irish Women, later named the ICA, they created craft movements and local markets, they were instrumental in the first group water schemes and started adult education before the VECs.
All over Ireland and especially in the West, co- operatives and local markets were forming. Their output figures added up to one thing – the transformation of local communities. They grew into multibillion euro industries surviving over 110 years later. They were formed from a vision of a better Ireland and by inspirational local leaders who were not satisfied with simply criticising current systems but resolved instead to shape their own future.
Time to do something different
I returned to Ireland in 1997 to take up the role as the first CEO of the Western Development Commission (WDC). I could see a possibility to transform the region I had emigrated from 12 years earlier. Between 1997 and 2002, during my time there, we proposed solutions to develop local towns and communities, create indigenous jobs in marine, agriculture, food, tourism, manufacturing, technology and inward investment. With some few exceptions our proposals were not implemented by successive Governments.
For instance we proposed ways to enable 65 sea-food processors along our coast to co-operate commercially, gain much better entry to global markets, revolutionise seafood processing industry in
Figures that add up to changing society.
There is a new mood on the ground. People are forming groups to fight for social justice, for the right to stay in their home, to deal with violent abuse, to stop exploitation of their land by outside investors, to stop the lethal proliferation of fracking, to reclaim their right to turf-cutting or inshore resources, to rebuild a rail system worthy of the name, to maintain healthcare services, and stop the rise of deeply unfair employment practices.
Transforming the society we live in
Recently in Ireland we have seen an upsurge in the politics of protest. Such protest shows a welcome awakening of people. However, while embracing protest we need to move beyond it also to building our own futures.
At a social level we have to start believing that we can transform our rural areas, towns and local villages and our urban estates to become far more attractive and safer places to live in. For instance in many local towns we see new estates built as separate enclaves with no interconnecting walkways, symbolizing a physical separation of people from each other. We need to address how local town planning can radically replace such separation with paths, walkways and spaces that physically reconnect communities.
We can re-imagine how local services such as health services, postal services, transport, professional and financial services, banking and more provision in life-long learning can be re-organised so they remain locally based and accessible for everyone. It is argued that it is not viable to run many of these services locally. This is defeatist logic. We can innovate ways to create new social economies of scale where the conventional economies of scale are absent and retain the services we need.
For instance we can find ways to connect local services such as post offices, libraries, drop-in centres, and citizen’s advice into not-for profit community services. We can stop accepting the language of closure and begin the conversation of expansion of local services.
At the farm level we have enormous opportunities to create businesses of scale in energy crops, organic food and other branded produce by creating thriving community-owned co-operatives with the scale capable of sustaining business in international markets.
We can transform our financial system by placing another community business – Credit Unions – at the heart of a drive to find fairer and more effective ways to create, invest and loan money locally.
We can decentralise whole areas of decision- making, administration and budgets to regional and local levels and remove many agencies and sections of departments that society does not need. Some years ago the Government carried out a study of quangos to identify those that do not represent value for money. I would take this to a different level. I would reassess all Government departments and agencies with a view to both their social and economic costs and impact, decide what can be scaled down and what can be devolved to local levels to meet local needs more effectively.
It is time to switch off the lights in many state-sponsored bodies and departments and turn on the lights in the communities these places are meant to serve.
The positive possibilities are endless once we begin to believe in ourselves again.
Many of us know special people, real leaders, those who are fair minded, enabling to others, socially entrepreneurial, talented, humble, resourceful, caring and with time to give; they seek not power or politics for themselves or their friends but to enable and serve. Let us look within our communities for those special people, those who work for cause not applause and find ways to encourage these people into leadership.
Let us amplify the impact of these people by creating the spaces where they can lead, by re-introducing more ways of working collectively, forming co-operatives, social enterprises, voluntary organisations. We have enormous potential if we can regain our ability to co-operate effectively.
We can lift this country by empowering a new set of figures, the lion-hearted people who are doing brave, generous things for others. Let us free ourselves from anger on the one hand or dangerous acquiescence on the other and start new levels of co-operation to change our world just like we did before.