Interview: Erskine Holmes, a born co-operator
Co-op News talks to a stalwart of the co-op movement to mark his 80th birthday
Erskine Holmes is a stalwart of the co-operative movement in Northern Ireland and beyond. He was instrumental in growing the region’s housing co-op sector, has sat on the Co-op Group’s National Member’s Council and has chaired Co-op Press – and he is still passionate about developing co-ops and social enterprises today. As he turns 80, we speak with him about education, politics and the state of co-ops in 2020 – and what lessons he has learned in over six decades as a co-operator.
“Apparently I was conceived in a co-operative bed. I was born into that bed, and when I got married, my mother gave me the bed to take with me.”
In his broad Belfast accent, Erskine Holmes has plenty of stories to tell from his time living, working, building and promoting co-operation in Northern Ireland. He was born on 4 February 1940, to a family of active co-op shoppers. “My mother would never have allowed you to shop without giving you the old co-op number and getting the dividend,” he says. “At that time the Belfast Co-operative society (BCS) was a very big general business. Just about everything you could get in Northern Ireland, you could get co-op – co-op coal, co-op milk, co-op furniture, co-op groceries, co-op funerals … It’s a sad state of affairs now that since the Group sold their (NI) funeral business, you can’t even be buried co-op in Northern Ireland.”
The BCS was formed in 1888 by 200 people, and by 1969 had over 192,000 members, the country’s largest single dairy, and was one of the largest coal distributors. In 1972 an IRA bomb started a fire that destroyed its headquarters in the converted Gallaher’s tobacco factory on York Street. In November the following year, the foundations of a new store were laid – but in January 1977, a week before its official opening, three bombs went off in the new building and in 1983 it was taken over by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS).
One of BCS’s former employees was Lord William ‘Billy’ Blease (1914-2008), who became the first Northern Ireland officer of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. “He was once asked what he considered to be his best qualification for the House of Lords,” says Erskine. “He said: ‘Ten years working behind a co-op bacon slicer’. He was saying that working in a co-op shop in a working class area of Belfast was probably the best training he ever had.”
Erskine has been a school teacher, a lecturer and a politician, and is currently active in a project – the Lagan Navigation Trust – that is trying to reconnect the Irish waterway system from Belfast to Limerick, which closed in the 1950s. “Belfast City Council has begun a £4m scheme to reopen a lock and put a new bridge in,” he says. “Lisburn & Castlereagh City Council are doing a £4m scheme in the borough of Lisburn. And there’s another scheme near to Lough Neagh – so we’re beginning to see progress on reuniting the waterway system again.”
But he is most proud of his work setting up 45 housing associations. He founded and served as the first chief executive of the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations in the 1970s, and in 1982 received an OBE for this work.
“All the associations that I established were industrial and provident societies,” says Erskine, “and I also promoted self-building co-operatives. From a standing start in 1975, today the movement has around 50,000 houses in co-operative, or industrial provident society ownership, or shared ownership.”
He thinks the key to their success was an early recognition that they should use private finance. “That gave us an advantage in Northern Ireland because the Treasury was looking at the housing expenditure and any money raised by the housing associations towards the development of housing was regarded as private funding – and not counted for public funding purposes. At the moment, there’s a temporary derogation by Treasury to the housing movement in Northern Ireland, to allow them to still have private status. But the National Audit Committee had recommended that they be treated as public; if this happens it could seriously damage housing finance in Northern Ireland.”
He is still active in housing today, chairing the development committee of the Grove Housing Association passive housing scheme, which is currently building 36 houses that will be completely energy neutral. He is involved with Ulster Garden Villages, an enterprise that funds a variety of projects, including the refurbishment of one of Belfast’s old housing estates, Merville Garden Village. And he chairs Home Options, which is trying to establish a not-for-profit, ethical alternative to the vulture funds that have been buying up the stress mortgages in Ireland. “Many of the vulture funds themselves are American,” he says “but there are pension funds in the United States who would invest in Irish housing if they could do so through an ethical bond”.
Another social enterprise he is active in is the Ulster Community Investment Trust, a charity which provides loans exclusively to other third sector organisations such as community groups, charities, sports clubs and social enterprises. Since 2001 it has committed more than £80m for 380 organisations in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“The Ulster Community Investment Trust (UCIT) in the north is developing a big head of steam,” says Erskine. “I formed UCIT 19 years ago with Father Myles Kavanagh of the Flax Trust in north Belfast. He’s the actual originator of it.” For over 40 years the Flax Trust has been committed to the reconciliation of a divided community through economic and social inclusion, aiming to bring peace to communities through one opportunity at a time. “I do feel that Northern Ireland owes Father Myles something special. He just never took no for an answer. He raised an awful lot of money for social enterprises.”
Erskine was a Belfast City Councillor from 1973-77 and also stood for Westminster elections. Today he chairs the Labour Party in Northern Ireland (LPNI). “We don’t have the right to stand in the election and we can’t yet organise in constituencies, but we do have 1,600 paying members and a large number of young, new members attending the meetings,” he says. In Northern Ireland, the Labour Party supports the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) which has informally taken the Labour whip in the House of Commons. Another issue is that, between the political levy paid by the trade unions and the membership dues paid by members, the Labour Party takes around £300,000 out of Northern Ireland, and they only give back £3,000 to run the region with.
“I think we’re in a completely new era where the centre is growing again in Northern Ireland, and I think the whole question of proper organisation of labour in Northern Ireland isn’t going to go away,” he says. “I intend to make sure that it doesn’t go away.”
Erskine ran the Northern Ireland in Europe campaign 1975 with Douglas McIldoon, but thinks that today the hard edge of debating Brexit is over as far as Northern Ireland is concerned. “We’re actually used to north-south co-operation here – and Brexit might have an unexpected positive effect going forward. It will force more co-operation north-south.” Following the UK’s general election in December and the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly (the devolved government that collapsed in January 2017 due to policy disagreements), Erskine believes there is particularly “fertile ground here”.
“I think new ideas produced by the co-operative movement will take hold if the effort is made,” he says. “Given the strength of the co-operation in Northern Ireland, through the credit unions and the agricultural sector and the many social enterprises that are organised as industrial and provident societies, there’s something solid to build on.”
But despite all the good work on co-ops, he believes there is a lack of development expertise in the country. “We don’t have a full Northern Ireland co-operative development agency (CDA), and I don’t think that Co-operatives UK has ever fully faced up to the challenge of providing Northern Ireland the little bit of extra help that it would need in view of the fact they don’t have a CDA.
“The Northern Ireland Co-op Forum (which was set up with the aim to further develop the co-operative model across the country) is still in existence, and at the moment is actually involved in setting up a community benefit society for a big £4m project to develop Riddles Warehouse, a listed building in the middle of Belfast which has got an amazing cast iron structure inside.
“You can do things like this without actually having a CDA, but the CDA would guarantee continuity. If I was unable to continue with this kind of work, who else would pick it up? In the Republic you have the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS), based in Plunkett House in Dublin – it has a development agency as part of its remit, but it tends to work very closely with agricultural communities rather than urban areas.”
He believes the future of agriculture is another growing issue for the co-operative movement, especially as there have been some cross-border mergers of societies.
“Southern Ireland will be part of the European agricultural funding arrangements, but Northern Ireland will be out of that. There is no organisation in Northern Ireland for agricultural co-operatives. Maybe ICOS or Co-operatives UK need to look at, for example, a part time person to represent the interests of societies in the north.”
He sees the establishment of the new Assembly in Northern Ireland as a time of great opportunity for the sector, “especially as Treasury wants to see Northern Ireland develop alternatives to the public model. The mutual model ticks all the boxes”.