Irish Credit Unions are a class apart

Bill Hudson, Programme Manager for the All Wales Credit Union Support Programme talks about an exciting trip to Ireland to learn about their phenomenal success with the credit union movement.

Welsh credit union activists in Belfast

The recent visit of Welsh credit union activists to Belfast, which was hosted by the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions, turned out to be an inspirational and motivating  experience  for the 12 delegates who attended from 7  Welsh credit unions. The visiting party were warmly welcomed by their northern Ireland counterparts who displayed a passion and commitment to delivering credit union services to all members of their society that was heart felt and genuine.

It all starts at Cloughfern

The visit started with a trip to the Cloughfern Community Credit Union which is located to the north of Belfast, in the borough of Newtownabbey and is surrounded by various working class housing estates with high levels of social deprivation. Cloughfern CU has over 3,000 members and assets of around £2.5m, making it similar to many Welsh credit unions in terms of membership but larger in terms of assets.

Ireland knows a thing a two about running a credit union

The credit union movement in northern Ireland is far more developed than the Welsh movement with 180 credit unions compared to the 22 in Wales. Membership in northern Ireland stands at around 460,000 compared to 60,000 in Wales. The northern Ireland credit unions generally cover much smaller common bond areas and have a market penetration rate of around 40% compared to the 2% in Wales. David Dowey, from the Ulster Federation explained that his credit unions were “bottom-up” community centred institutions that had the most disadvantaged members of society at the heart of all of their business activities.

One of the things that stood out about the Ulster Federation credit unions was the unerring rule that nobody could borrow from one of their credit unions until they had saved regularly for a period of 13 weeks, a practice which many Welsh credit unions have now abandoned. The northern Ireland credit unions believe that this rule helps them to get to know the member better and instils a form of discipline in the making of regular payments.

Visiting the one of the largest credit unions in Northern Ireland

From Newtownabbey the group moved on towards the centre of Belfast to visit Newington Credit Union, one of the larger northern Ireland credit unions with 10,000 members and £25m in assets. Newington CU operates from impressive purpose built offices which look very inviting and professional. Lending out £8m every year, Newington CU is firmly at the heart of the small community that it serves. Welsh credit union delegates discussed with the Newington Board members some of their apprehensions about the recent arrival of the FSA as their regulators which seemed to be an unpopular directive with many.

The final visit of the day was to Muckamore Credit Union in County Antrim, which was a much smaller credit union located on the edge of Antrim town. It is located among working class housing areas with numerous social problems. Membership stands at around 500 but with an impressive loan book of over £600,000. In spite of this level of business Muckamore CU is open to its members for just two and a half hours each week on a Friday evening. Unsurprisingly the office based in the Muckamore Orange Hall, was extremely busy.

A bit about Child Trust Fund accounts

On the following day the group travelled north to visit Slemish and the Braid Credit Union in Ballymena. This credit union has a proud Ulster-Scots heritage which aims to give the local area a means to save and affordable loans to people who would find it hard to get this service in the high street. Slemish and the Braid Credit Union which has around 2,000 members with assets of around £1.75m, does not own its own premises but operates from a range of community based organisations throughout the common bond area. The meeting was also attended by Robin Swann, MLA, who represents the North Antrim Constituency in the Northern Ireland Assembly, who listened with interest to the Welsh movement’s partnership with the Welsh Government and their experience in dealing with Child Trust Fund accounts, which credit unions in northern Ireland were not previously allowed to offer.

And Ballymena

The group’s final official visit was to the Mayor’s Parlour in Ballymena, where they were greeted by Mayor Paddy McAteer. This was followed by a short visit to the Giant’s Causeway and a final gathering in Newtownabbey, hosted by the Ulster Federation, where plans to reciprocate with a visit of the Ulster Federation to Welsh credit unions were started. The hand of friendship and hospitality of the Ulster Federation of Credit Unions and in particular the co-operation of both David Dowey and our high speed, fast talking bus driver and Robin Andrews, were very much appreciated by all of the visiting delegates.  

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