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ICOS president James O’Donnell and ICOS chief executive TJ Flanagan at the 128th ICOS agm in Portlaoise on Thursday 1st June 2023. Picture: Alf Harvey.

Our movement creates wealth and economic opportunity in every parish and small town of Ireland – places that foreign direct investment doesn’t reach”

At the 128th AGM of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), held this morning in Portlaoise, outgoing ICOS President James O’Donnell acknowledged the Irish dairy industry’s remarkable growth and highlighted the sector’s capability to meet upcoming challenges. In doing so, he underscored the importance of ensuring continuing, sustainable growth and enhanced productivity, albeit at a slower pace, after a period of rapid dairy expansion.

“Co-operatives have played a crucially important and innovative role in bringing the highest quality dairy foods and nutritional products to global markets, underpinning the sustainability of our farm families and rural communities nationwide,” said James O’Donnell.

“From a modest and restricted base, since the lifting of milk quotas, the Irish dairy industry has nearly doubled its production, meeting all required targets and projections set down for the agri-economy in successive government plans. This has been driven primarily by the entrepreneurship, skills, and resilience of family farms and the power of the co-operative model of organisation and governance.”

The ICOS President cited independently conducted research by EY, commissioned by Tirlán Co-operative, which indicated that the co-operative sector was responsible for promoting and facilitating economic activity of €16 billion in 2022.

“Our associated businesses are making a major, multi-annual socio-economic contribution, with some 175,000 individual members nationwide, employing 12,000 people in Ireland, and a further 24,000 people overseas,” said James O’Donnell.

“As the pace of dairy expansion now slows, we need to promote even greater resilience, progress and innovation throughout the co-operative movement. New environmental and animal welfare challenges, including the need to decarbonise supply chains and reduce chemical fertiliser use, are expected.  ICOS is confident in the capability of the Irish dairy industry to address our sustainability priorities.

“It must be acknowledged that significant progress is currently being achieved across a range of areas, related to greenhouse gas emissions, water quality, ammonia and biodiversity. I believe that reason and practicality must prevail in creating sustainable solutions for the future. Rather than stakeholders and commentators seeking to create a ‘cliff-edge’ moment for agriculture, there can be an orderly, managed and continuous evolution towards further enhanced sustainability, in line with decarbonisation objectives.

“Ireland has significant advantages in meeting these challenges including our grass-based system of production and family farm structure. We must continue to protect the productivity of the dairy sector, while taking full advantage of opportunities in renewable energy, anaerobic digestion, carbon farming and the bio-economy. We must also continue effectively to communicate the value and contribution of the dairy sector to the stakeholders and consumers who we serve with high quality nutrition.

“While the impact of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) resonates strongly in the corridors of Dublin and other major urban centres, it is the co-operative movement that generates wealth and fosters economic opportunities in every parish and smaller towns across Ireland, typically overlooked by FDI.”

Mr. O’Donnell highlighted the importance of engaging the younger generation and particularly the urgency for greater inclusion and participation of women in leading and sustaining co-operatives.

“As we confront evolving challenges, the co-operative movement’s role becomes even more crucial. There is an urgent need to underpin businesses and livelihoods that are appealing to the younger generation and competitive enough to match the allure of comfortable urban jobs or overseas opportunities in countries like Australia.

“I was very pleased to launch ICOS’ National Gender Equality Charter in March. In common with the rest of Europe, the presence of women in Irish co-operative organisational structures has traditionally been under-represented over many decades. We want to ensure that the skills, energy and focus of thousands of women – who have worked so hard to build our family farm businesses – become fully integrated into the direction and leadership of our co-operatives.”

James O’Donnell also noted the 50th anniversary of ICOS opening an office in Brussels, which was recently celebrated jointly with the IFA. He said ICOS would continue to exercise influence on behalf of its members at the highest levels of the EU. He welcomed the recent appointment of former RTÉ broadcaster Damien O’Reilly as head of the Brussels office.

James O’Donnell is retiring from the ICOS Rural Business Committee by rotation and thereby, retiring from the Board and as ICOS President.  He was first elected onto the ICOS Rural Business Committee 14 years ago, the ICOS Board eight years ago, and became President in June 2022 having also served as Vice President for four years. He represented the National Co-operative Farm Relief Service on the ICOS Board. Mr. O’Donnell expressed warm appreciation for the encouragement and support he has received throughout his tenure from all co-operative members, colleagues and the CEO TJ Flanagan, management and people of ICOS.