COMMENT: I was tremendously enthused by all of the presentations given at last week’s Irish Co-operative Society (ICOS) conference, held in Portlaoise.

The event confirmed for me, once and for all, that the Irish farming and food sectors can look forward to a very bright future. The only missing ingredient was the absolute dearth of attending delegates from Northern Ireland. This last comment should not be taken as a criticism of ICOS. Under that organisation’s constitution, provision may not be made to allow for attendees from organisations that are not ICOS members.

However, what did strike me throughout the day long proceedings was the tremendous potential for coherent, cross -border food processing strategies that would allow both parts of the island join forces in a way that would bring true meaning to the phrase  ‘the sum of the whole system is greater than the sum of its parts’.

In my opinion our future lies in the development of  stronger synergies within the island’s food sector as a whole.

Up to a point this has already happened – but very much on the basis of acquisition. Many food processing business in the Republic of Ireland now own operations in the North – and vice versa.

However, I was very much taken by the comments made by Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon, courtesy of her presentation at the ICOS event when she said that the opportunity now exists for real and genuine collaboration to take place between food companies, without any of the individual parties involved losing their respective identities. And, personally, I see no reason why this issue cannot be addressed on an all-island basis.

The reality is that significant growth will be achieved within the Irish food sector – North and South – over the coming years. But, unless we take the appropriate steps, exporters form both parts of the island may well end up chasing the same customers. Duplication of effort, in such a manner, makes absolutely no sense at all.

Up to recently there had been a close working relationship between the Irish co-ops – North and South. That relationship died with the demise of UAOS (Ulster Agricultural Organisation Society) some years ago.

However, there is little doubt in my mind that the time is now right to re-kindle these relationships in ways that make sound financial sense for all the parties involved. The reality remains that, in Northern Ireland, the co-operative vision is still very much alive and kicking when one considers the current performance of United Dairy Farmers and Fane Valley Co-op.

Surely we can build on all of this for the future!