When it comes to Dunnes Stores, Burton won’t be beaten to the high moral ground

Tánaiste’s shopping bag of verbal grenades rattles Opposition

"Dunnes Stores, better politics beats them all'' – a variation of the jingle in a one-time radio advertisement would have been appropriate in the Dáil yesterday.

There was unanimous support for the company’s workers who had put pickets on outlets throughout the State.

The Opposition was demanding more than words and sympathy from the Government benches.

Replying, Tánaiste Joan Burton had the equivalent of a shopping bag of verbal grenades which rattled the Opposition.

Fianna Fáil's Billy Kelleher noted the plight of the supermarket workers had a strong resonance with people because of the stand taken by former colleagues against apartheid in the 1980s.

On the wall of his office was a photograph of himself with the late Nelson Mandela in Cape Town in 1995, Mr Kelleher revealed.

“How are my girlfriends in Ireland?’’ Mandela had asked him. “They meant a lot to me in our struggle.’’

Reprimanded

Kelleher said current workers were on zero-hour contracts. “Nobody is worth zero,’’ he added.

He accused the Government of doing very little in terms of introducing legislation to address the problem.

Burton was intent in knocking the Opposition off the high moral ground.

She first reprimanded Dunnes Stores management for not engaging in the industrial relations machinery.

“I would encourage the company to use that machinery,’’ she added.

She then rounded on Fianna Fáil, noting the Government had reversed the cut the party made to the minimum wage when in office.

Addressing the former Fianna Fáil minister of state, Burton said: “Deputy Kelleher had a position of responsibility in that regard at the time.’’

She said legislation covering collective bargaining would be introduced before the summer.

Independent TD Finian McGrath suggested enacting the legislation would have to await the next government.

Minister of State Gerald Nash, sitting next to the Tánaiste, reminded McGrath of his association with fellow Independent Shane Ross.

“Shane does not like collective bargaining,’’ said Nash.

Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald said Fine Gael and Labour, like Fianna Fáil before them, had failed to protect the workers.

Burton said she was sure McDonald had been briefed on her party's position in Northern Ireland, where approximately 32,000 workers are on zero-hour contracts.

"Then, when the relevant minister undertook a review on behalf of the Northern Ireland Executive, to which Sinn Féin is a party, Sinn Féin changed its position to a matter of regulation,'' she added.

Sinn Féin was as silent as Fianna Fáil had been earlier.

Paul Murphy, of the Socialist Party, said the "stories of bullying, harassment and intimidation'' of the workers were shocking.

Burton, in a reference to a water charges protest in Tallaght, replied that “the deputy probably knows a little bit more about bullying, intimidation and threats than almost anybody else’’.

Nash went further. “The bully with the silver spoon in his mouth,’’ he declared.

The strike was casting a long political shadow over the chamber.

Meanwhile, away from Leinster House, the Dunnes Stores workers continued picketing in the rain.

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