Ministers struggled to frame response to Dunnes Stores strike

Determined efforts by employers’ body and ICTU failed to achieve resolution

Karen Gearon, shop steward of the striking Dunnes Stores workers, receiving a cheque for $1,000 from Seán Mac Bride, on behalf of the Irish-American Trade Union Coalition, in Dublin in May 1985. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

Karen Gearon, shop steward of the striking Dunnes Stores workers, receiving a cheque for $1,000 from Seán Mac Bride, on behalf of the Irish-American Trade Union Coalition, in Dublin in May 1985. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

 

Government ministers and officials struggled during 1985 to find a way of dealing with the political controversy generated by a group of Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike in protest at the company’s sale of produce from apartheid South Africa.

Senior ministers from the taoiseach down became embroiled in efforts to solve the dispute and to ratchet up pressure on the South African government to end apartheid.

The strike, in the branch of Dunnes on Dublin’s Henry Street, began in August 1984, when checkout operator Mary Manning (21) refused to process South African oranges for a customer, in line with a directive from her trade union, IDATU.

She was suspended and went on strike outside the shop with 10 of her colleagues.

The strike, which was confined to the Henry Street branch, was still in progress in 1985. By that stage, a number of government departments had become involved in the search for a solution.

Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald become involved in the issue following representations from Workers Party TD Proinsias De Rossa and the general secretary of the Labour Party, Colm Ó Briain.

In a letter to De Rossa in March, FitzGerald said that while the underlying motivation of opposition to apartheid which led to the strike was easy to accept, the result had been an official industrial dispute which the determined efforts of the employers’ body and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions had failed to resolve.

He said State agencies for solving disputes had not been used. “You will accept, of course, that in our democratic society neither the Minister nor the Government can compel their use,” he added.

Intractable

Then minister for labour Ruairí Quinn wrote to then minister for foreign affairs Peter Barry the same month referring to the intractable dispute.

“We could perhaps draw up a code of practice on the importation, distribution and retailing of South African goods. Such guidelines might be the basis on which we could strive for a voluntary agreement in the matter among importers and distributors.”

Official contacts

A flurry of official contacts between the departments of the taoiseach, foreign affairs and Labour followed.

One memo from foreign affairs was emphatic: “In the absence of internationally agreed sanctions on trade with South Africa the Government must recognise the right of private companies to engage in such trade if they so wish.”

The European Community came up with a common position expressing opposition to apartheid and encouraging member states not to trade with South Africa.

Eight of the strikers and a union official flew to South Africa in the summer and were refused entry.

In October FitzGerald was given a letter from the South African premier, PJ Botha, which pleaded for understanding and said South Africa was moving to become a modern democratic society.

FitzGerald responded by setting out the Irish view that apartheid “is repugnant, immoral and must be abolished”. He added that the steps being taken by Europe were designed to reinforce that position.

The strike rumbled on for another year and was not finally settled until 1987 when the government, in line with other EU countries, imposed a ban on South African fruit imports.