State archives: Ministers fought ban on imports of South African fruit and veg

Cabinet was considering move in response to huge public support for striking Dunnes workers who refused to handle South African fruit

Two senior Fine Gael ministers resisted attempts by the government to impose a ban on the importation of fruit and vegetables from South Africa in 1985.

State papers show John Bruton and Peter Barry strongly advised their cabinet colleagues against taking such action.

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald and his cabinet were considering such a measure in response to huge public support for a group of striking workers at Dunnes Stores on Henry St, Dublin, who had been suspended after they refused to handle South African fruit.

The government already discouraged trade and economic links as a matter of policy as a means of pressuring the South African government to abandon its apartheid regime.

In a letter written on July 23, 1985, Mr Bruton, who was minister for industry, trade, commerce and transport, took to task his cabinet colleague, Ruairí Quinn, the minister for labour, for taking a lead role in seeking to introduce some trade restrictions on South Africa.

‘Glenroe’ actor Emmet Bergin with Dunnes Stores workers at an anti-apartheid demonstration.
‘Glenroe’ actor Emmet Bergin with Dunnes Stores workers at an anti-apartheid demonstration.

“I wonder whether the context of a year-long industrial dispute which has attracted so much publicity is the setting in which you should become involved in trying to get agreements on a code of practice,” he wrote.

He warned there would be no gain for Irish exports but there were potential dangers that Ireland could breach EEC legislation and international trade agreements as well as face possible retaliation by South Africa which was “a hefty net importer of Irish goods”.

Mr Bruton said he was too concerned about the viability of Irish firms exporting to South Africa to risk the retaliation that could arise from Ireland taking some unilateral action against South African goods. “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,” he noted.

Earlier that month, Mr Quinn had sought approval to hold a conference of the major supermarket chains to agree a voluntary code of practice designed to minimise the sale of South African goods. The staging of a conference was a recommendation of the Labour Court which sought to bring an end to the industrial dispute at Dunnes which had lasted almost a year at that point. If that didn’t work, Mr Quinn wanted the government to introduce licensing arrangements on products from South Africa.

However, Mr Bruton said he had a list of reasons why Ireland should not take such a course of action which he would apply “with varying degrees of force” dependent on whether voluntary or mandatory restrictions were proposed. “At the nub of it all is my growing sense of conviction that any government involved in efforts — however so they may be disguised as voluntary — in effect amount to restrictions on South-African imports,” Mr Bruton said.

He expressed reservations about how any ministerial involvement in such restrictions would be “played up” by the media given the subject was already “so much before the public eye”.

Mr Bruton also cautioned Mr Quinn about taking a major stance on the issue.

“I think that your involvement — and the pressure to produce results — would very quickly undermine the voluntary nature of any arrangements,” he added.

Mr Bruton also said he was unconvinced there was much room to find replacement products to substitute any goods which might be banned from South Africa for reasons of seasonality, competition and “the pattern of imports”.

Other State papers show the Department of Foreign Affairs had no objections on political grounds to Mr Quinn’s proposals but did express concern they could cause legal difficulties because of Ireland’s membership of the EEC.

Mr Barry, the minister for foreign affairs, informed the Labour leader and Tánaiste Dick Spring that other EEC countries had taken some form of unilateral action against South Africa including Denmark which had enacted legislation forbidding new investment by Danish firms in South Africa. However, he pointed out no other EEC states had imposed an actual ban on the importation of goods.

“A unilateral ban on trade with South Africa is inappropriate at present in that it would be unlikely to influence the South African government to end apartheid,” Mr Barry reasoned. He claimed for pressure on South Africa to be effective, there had to be an international agreement on measures to be taken.

He believed sanctions would have to be mandatory, graduated, carefully chosen, and fully implemented if they were to work.

The minister said he was concerned the Dunnes dispute was likely to drag on for a long time with losses to both sides. In addition, he said it was attracting a lot of international attention which had “damaging consequences for the country’s international reputation”.

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