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DUBLIN, Ireland – Attitudes have changed in the 30 years she’s been working with credit unions and Anne O’Bryne says the fact that she’s been elected the first woman president of the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) is proof of that. Byrne recalls when she became a teller two decades ago for Blessington Credit Union, then a board member and eventually chairman of the board. When she attended her first chapter meeting each chairman was supposed to make a short speech. They called on her before anyone else because Blessington was the first credit union alphabetically. When she stood up, the chapter chair said, “But we are looking for the chairman.” “I am the chairman,” she said. In the back of the room she heard a voice, “In our credit union women do the washing up and make the tea.” She said she recalled at the time how lucky she was to be from Blessington CU because in her credit union men made tea and cleaned up. O’Bryne became more active in chapter work, then went on to run for the ILCU Board. Although she lost the first time, she won the second time. Today the lucky numbered 13-person board has three women and gender is not an issue. Over half the board members are new. Each election, every two years, all members must rerun for the board with a 10-year limit for service. So O’Byrne’s two-year presidency will bring her to the end of her service limit. Now as president of the Irish League of Credit Unions, O’Bryne is concerned with today’s issues facing Irish credit unions. One is legislation and regulation. She considers it mandatory that ILCU maintains good relations with the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority (IFRSA), the government authority that oversees credit unions, a different agency from when she began her credit union involvement. At the same time she is determined that the agency recognize the special mission of credit unions and their differences from banks. She is looking specifically for more liberal lending policies. Since small credit unions with 300 members have far greater needs than larger ones with thousands of members, she thinks that regulations could vary depending on the size of a credit union. Electronic Funds Transfer is another major issue that O’Byrne is concerned with. Five credit unions are currently participating in a pilot program with the Bank of Ireland. If successful, then any credit union that wants to participate will be able to offer electronic money transfers and eventually ATM access to their membership. O’Bryne said there are now two credit union associations representing Irish credit unions. The Credit Union Development Association was formed in 2002 and represents more than 20 of the 500 credit unions in Ireland. Like ILCU they have requested legislation and are working with IFRSA. She does not worry that there are two organizations, but she believes that both groups must remember that their most important constituency are credit union members. O’Byrne points out that despite the Celtic Tiger that has propelled Ireland from a struggling to a booming economy, not everyone had been helped. There are still many people who fall victim to the money lenders, loan sharks and pawnshops, although no where near the number when Nora Herlihy and John Hume, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize, started the Irish Credit Union movement in 1958. Now it is almost impossible to find a town or village in Ireland without at least one credit union. O’Byrne believes that credit unions also need to do more social financing. Part of that, she says, involves programs like MABS (Money Advice Budget Service) which helps people get out of debt, but social financing also means improving the community. Helping to build playgrounds, tutoring youngsters, making artist grants and helping credit unions in poor countries, all fall under the social finance category. O’Bryne’s children are now grown, but even so she feels she couldn’t do what she is doing without their support as well as her husband’s and her colleagues in the outpatient department of the hospital where she works (unlike league presidency positions in the U.S., the ILCU president spot is not a full-time job.) She’s also appreciative of the many credit union-offered training courses in management and self-improvement she took that she said helped empower her as a person. That’s something she wants to pass on to others working with the ILCU. -

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