State archives: Dunnes Stores strike demonstrated power of the few

The Dunnes Stores strike began on July 19, 1984.

Irish Poet Seamus Heaney, right, with Dunnes Stores workers at a anti-apartheid demonstration in October 1985. Picture: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union (IDATU) had instructed its members not to handle produce from South Africa in a protest against that country’s policy of apartheid.

Working at a checkout counter, Mary Manning, 22, explained to a customer that she would not handle two South African grapefruits.

The customer readily accepted the situation but a member of management took exception.

Ms Manning and her union shop steward, Karen Gearon, were summoned upstairs and given five minutes to back down.

Both refused to capitulate and they were suspended.

They reacted by going on strike and six colleagues from the Henry Street store joined them. The strike continued for almost three years, until April 1987.

They had set out on a particularly lonely road. The Labour Department informed Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) and the Federated Union of Employers (FUE) were reluctant to get involved in the dispute, as IDATU was “way offside” on the issue.

The Departments of Labour and Foreign Affairs avoided any public comment on the issue pending outcome of the deliberations of the Labour Court.

John Horgan, the chairman of the Labour Court issued his recommendation on May 21, 1985.

He said the court could “find no simple explanation why the dispute arose in Henry Street and nowhere else”.

Mr Horgan noted: “The union should have handled the issue differently.” He found that management had given a fair warning of the disciplinary measures but the strikers took unilateral action in breach of their contract of employment.

He went on, however, to recognise that “the strike has focused attention in Ireland on the injustice of the system in a way which had never been done before”.

“No matter what happens now that is a major achievement for the strikers.

“They have achieved more in nine months than all other unions have achieved in as many years,” he concluded. But they had gone as far as they could go.

What was needed was “an agreement between the major supermarkets to voluntarily restrict their marketing of South African goods,” Mr Horgan said.

He therefore proposed that the Minister for Labour convene a conference of the major supermarket chains to agree a voluntary code of practice, the object of which would be to minimise the sale of South African goods in supermarkets”.

Archbishop Tutu had invited the strikers to visit South Africa in order to witness apartheid in operation.

But when they arrived in Johannesburg they were held for eight hours and then put back on the same aircraft and flown back to London.

That action by the South African authorities generated enormous publicity for the strike, especially from individual politicians and church figures.

Bishop Eamon Casey of Galway and Bishop Dermot O’Mahony, the chairman of the Commission for Justice and Peace, spoke out in support of the strikers, along with John Hume and David Andrews, while Senator Edward Kennedy followed in the United States.

But the Irish Government was still slow to act.

Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Barry warned Tánaiste Dick Spring on July 11, 1985, that a unilateral trade ban on South Africa would be futile. “There must be international agreement on measures to be taken and sanctions, if they are to be effective, must be mandatory, graduated, carefully chosen and fully implemented.” By their actions the strikers were, at least, forcing the politicians to think about the issues.

“I have given much thought to this question and I am afraid all my instincts tell me that the Government should not become involved in any activity which is designed to restrict imports from South Africa,” said John Bruton, the Minister for Industry, Trade, Commerce and Tourism.

He had warned Labour Minister Ruairi Quinn on July 23: “There is no gain for Irish exports but there are potential dangers” because South Africa was “a hefty net importer of Irish goods”.

”The courageous action by the workers involved in this dispute has already been successful in focusing the attention of the community in Ireland and abroad on events in South Africa,” Mr. Quinn said on September 13.

The Labour Court had recommended that the supermarkets get together and agree measures to ban South African imports, but the supermarkets said that they controlled less than 30% of the fresh fruit market so it would not be effective if they banned South Africa fruit.

Mr Quinn, called on the Labour Court to take another look at the problem. While politicians were going in circles, the strikers were gaining further international recognition.

On October 10, Karen Gearon and Michelle Gavin were invited to speak before UN’s Special Committee Against Apartheid in New York.

Privately Garret FitzGerald was critical “of Dunnes’ insensitive management style” and he expressed admiration for “the principle stand taken by the workers”.

The Attorney General notified him that the government could introduce a unilateral ban on South African imports, but the Taoiseach feared the repercussions on the employment prospects for the 700 workers in the South African diamond factory in Shannon.

Before the end of the year Donal Nevin of ICTU and the Taoiseach were talking about the South African problem.

They could no longer ignore the Dunnes strikers, who had demonstrated the power of a small group of determined people standing up for other people’s rights.


Related Articles


Breaking Stories

Withdrawal deal is a decisive step forward, insists NI Secretary

Simon Coveney to travel to Brussels for Brexit discussions

Leo Varadkar floats €3bn tax plan but rules out early election

Most HSE staff not briefed on open disclosure

Breaking Stories

Ensuring Britain is still open for the business of arts

He dreamed a dream: Killian Donnelly talks about leading Les Miserables in Dublin this Christmas

Islands of Ireland: Islandhopping to Hop Island

Donal Hickey: Plans are in place to save the pearl mussel

More From The Irish Examiner