Irish workers’ apartheid fight finds fitting closure

The sight of South Africans paying respects to Nelson Mandela evoked strong emotions in the Dunnes strikers

Mary Manning, Liz Deasy and Karen Gearon, three of the Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike 29 years ago.  “There has been a start, middle and this is the end,” said Ms Gearon at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Soweto yesterday.  Photograph: Eric Luke

Mary Manning, Liz Deasy and Karen Gearon, three of the Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike 29 years ago. “There has been a start, middle and this is the end,” said Ms Gearon at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in Soweto yesterday. Photograph: Eric Luke

Wed, Dec 11, 2013, 01:00

The Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike in protest against the apartheid regime believe yesterday’s memorial service for the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa marks the end of their near three-decade human rights fight.

Mary Manning, Karen Gearon and Liz Deasy watched in admiration from the VIP sections of the FNB stadium in Soweto as the anti-apartheid icon they supported from afar was bid an emotional farewell by South Africa and the world.

In July 1984 they, along with eight other colleagues, implemented a union instruction not to handle South African goods, in protest at the apartheid regime and Mr Mandela’s incarceration.

When Ms Manning was suspended from her position for refusing to handle the goods, the union put a picket on the store and she and her colleagues went on strike. The strike lasted two years and nine months and led to Ireland being the first country to ban goods from South Africa in 1987.

Last act
Ms Gearon said witnessing the people of South Africa paying their respects in true African style was a joy to behold, but it also evoked strong personal emotions around her own journey in the fight against apartheid.

“This feels like a conclusion to what we started nearly three decades ago when we went out on strike. There has been a start, middle and this is the end. It has been amazing to participate in this and see a democratic South Africa in the flesh, which is what we fought for.

“Getting invited here is a type of acknowledgment for our efforts that we never received before. When we went on strike back in the 1980s we were looked at as troublemakers, but now most people support what we did, and that feels good,” she said.

Ms Manning felt a similar sentiment in relation to their trip to attend Mr Mandela’s funeral and how it affected her life. “When our other eight colleagues get here tomorrow, the trip brings the whole episode to a very nice end. Saying goodbye like this is a very fitting closure, in many respects . . . It just feels right,” she said.

They also feel the manner in which the Irish delegation at the funeral treated them vindicated the strike action they embarked upon 29 years ago.

The three were invited to a dinner at Irish Ambassador Brendan McMahon’s residence in Pretoria on Monday evening, which was attended by President Michael D Higgins and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore. It made their day when President Higgins said the dinner was held in their honour, Ms Gearon said.