Michael Spellman has been President of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS) since June, 2018. Irish Tractor & Agri touched base with the popular Roscommon man to see how he’s getting on in his new role.
Upon his election as President of the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society on June 1st, 2018, Michael Spellman alluded to the huge role played by farmer-owned and -controlled co-operatives in underpinning Ireland’s vibrant agri-food sector. Crucially, the Roscommon man also acknowledged the challenges facing the sector with regard to CAP funding, volatility and compliance with our environmental commitments.
Former Chairman of the ICOS National Marts committee, the Finances & Governances sub-committees and a former President of the European Association of Livestock Markets (EALM), the personable dry stock farmer from Kilteevan also served as chairman of Roscommon Leader Partnership and is a Board Member of Roscommon Co-operative Livestock Mart, having served as chairman for five years.
With co-ops employing more than 12,000 people in Ireland with a cumulative turnover here of close to €15b, the reach and scope of the co-operative movement is simply staggering – and under-estimated by much of the non-farming community…
“The whole agri business is the backbone of this country,” Michael states. “Agri activity is what keeps the country afloat and safeguarding that is absolutely vital.”
ICOS don’t just represent the agriculture co-ops – dairy co-ops and livestock marts – but also a wide range of co-ops including food, fishing & beverages; store, trade & wholesale co-ops, service-related co-ops; community, culture and leisure co-ops and advisory and education-related co-ops, serving bodies that collectively have over 150,000 individual members.
The Irish Co-operative Organisation Society is a unifying force for the Irish co-operative movement. Its core business is to provide vision, leadership and value to the co-operative movement in Ireland, using its collective voice to promote the needs of the co-operative movement and member co-ops.
“Lobbying is a big part of what we do,” Michael continues. “Another strong part of our function is governance, i.e. the production of rules for individual co-ops who would find it very difficult to source that outside the ICOS structure. Every co-op has to have its own rulebook when formed and we provide information and guidelines on the production of this rulebook.”
ICOS caters for a wide range of co-ops, large and small. “There are a number of new co-ops registered every year, particularly in recent times with the focus on alternative energy – a relatively new industry where people are coming together and setting up co-ops,” says the society’s President. “There is a minimum requirement of seven members to set up a co-op and you can have any number of shareholder members after that.”
In his capacity as President of ICOS, Michael chairs all meetings (either in Plunkett House, Merrion Square, Dublin or Portlaoise) of the 13-member Board, which has representatives from all co-op types, predominantly dairy. Regarding the burning issues of the day, he points out: “Obviously, Brexit is of serious concern to us at the moment. It’s particularly worrying for those engaged in the agri sector.
“60% of all beef exported out of Ireland goes to the UK as well as significant quantities of cheese and butter and other produce such as mushrooms, etc. Brexit is not just a concern for people living close to the border – it will affect the entire Irish economy and the uncertainty is what’s concerning us. Because of the ongoing uncertainty, we are not in a position to take adequate measures to safeguard against it
“The new CAP proposals 2020-27 represent another major issue. There are changes being proposed which include a reduction in the amount of aid coming through and there will be an eco measure in the programme going forward. There’ll be more emphasis on the environment and additional benefits for farmers participating in the current GLAS and future similar programmes.
“Obviously, for all of this, there will be additional work that needs to be done and appropriate representation will be made to bring about changes that will be suitable to the Irish situation specifically. Other farming representative bodies will be playing a part in that as well, especially with all this uncertainty surrounding Brexit.
“The whole area of climate change is another pressing issue. This has thrown up a lot of significant challenges for the agri industry but we will play our part in doing whatever we can to address this very serious issue. We have to be guided by the science that is there, with the assistance of Teagasc, and we pay a lot of attention to the great work they are doing at their Research Centres in Moorepark in Fermoy, Johnstown Castle in Wexford and elsewhere.”
From a dry stock farming background, Michael still farms part-time in Kilteevan, three miles from Roscommon town. He has been active in farming politics for 30 years. It was while he was Chairman of the National Marts Committee of ICOS that he served a two-year term as President of the European Association of Livestock Markets, which has members in eight European countries dealing with a wide spectrum of livestock issues including animal welfare and marketing.
Why give up so much of his time to advance the needs of others? “When you get involved in the politics of chairing committees, etc., it’s an undertaking you have to give both time and commitment to. Everything we do in ICOS is geared towards the interests and betterment of our members, who are the farmers on the ground. The people who milk the cows and produce the beef are the owners and shareholders of the co-operatives.
“Somebody has to step out to the front and be prepared to give leadership. It’s unfair to be critical of any aspect of what life throws at you if you aren’t prepared to get involved and try to effect change to make things better for yourself and for others in your industry. You can’t be always thinking about yourself.”
Certainly something Michael Spellman could never stand accused of! “Rural Ireland depends solely on the agri industry, which props up the whole economy,” he concludes. “When the farmer is going well, everybody else goes well. But, if the farmer is in the doldrums, it has far-reaching repercussions for the rest of the rural economy.”
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Taken from Irish Tractor & Agri magazine Vol 7 No 1, February/March 2019