Ben Dunne praises Mandela but defends position on strike

Dunnes Stores workers engaged in lengthy labour dispute over sale of South African goods

Former Dunnes Stores chief executive Ben Dunne has paid tribute to Nelson Mandela but defended his position in relation to the bitter strike almost 30 years ago. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien.

Former Dunnes Stores chief executive Ben Dunne has paid tribute to Nelson Mandela but defended his position in relation to the bitter strike almost 30 years ago. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien.

Fri, Dec 6, 2013, 17:59

Former Dunnes Stores chief executive Ben Dunne has paid tribute to Nelson Mandela but defended his position in relation to the bitter strike almost 30 years ago.

The decision by 12 workers not to handle South African produce imported by Dunnes Stores led to one of the most protracted labour disputes in Irish history which lasted from June 1984 to August 1987.

Mr Dunne, who was head of the company at the time, said he always admired both Mr Mandela and the Dunnes Stores strikers, but the attempts to boycott South African produce would have created a precedent of the “tail wagging the dog”.

Mr Dunne added: “My opinion of Mandela has never changed. He was a fantastic man who stood up for his principles. He was a great peacemaker and I hope people, now that he has moved and crossed the River Jordan, will remember his many words of wisdom.

“You have to admire the 12 people in Dunnes who took a stand. Unfortunately, I got caught up in it. It didn’t escalate the way it should have done.”

Six years ago Mr Dunne apologised publicly to former cashier Mary Manning whose refusal to handle South African oranges led to her suspension along with 12 others.

When asked if he would do things differently now, he said: “Absolutely not. If you have 10,000 people working for you and 10 or 12 go on strike on an issue, you think about the other 10,000 people who are working rather than the 10 or 12 who are out on strike.”

Mr Dunne said the Irish Government at the time could have ended the strike quickly had it intervened and banned the importation of all South African fruit and vegetables, something it did do in August 1987 which ended the strike.

Mr Dunne said his decision to oppose the strikers was a “commercial decision” rather than signalling support for the Apartheid regime in South Africa.

“If it was South Africa and oranges one week, why could it not be British goods the next week? All of a sudden, you could have got yourself into a situation where people with secure jobs lose them and the place closes down. That is the only reason I took the business decision I took.

“We couldn’t accommodate 12 people though I understood their position and agreed with their decision. I feel very proud for the people who took the stand that they took, but as a commercial man, you have to protect 10,000 jobs instead of 12 jobs.”

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