Call for Dunnes strikers to attend Mandela funeral
‘We were determined we were not going back to work if we had to handle South African goods’
Cathryn O’Reilly, from Finglas, one of the Dunnes Stores strikers, presenting Nelson Mandela with a Robert Ballagh print calling for the release of the Birmingham Six in 1990. Photograph: Frank Miller
The former Dunnes Stores worker whose refusal to handle South African grapefruit sparked a strike and the banning of South African goods in Ireland says she and her fellow strikers would “love” to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
“It would be a lovely way to say ‘goodbye’,” says Mary Manning amid calls for them to form part of Ireland’s official representation at next week’s funeral services in South Africa.
Manning, who was 21 at the time, says her stance and that of her 10 colleagues, was “at the end of the day about achieving what Nelson Mandela and the people of South Africa were fighting for”.
Now an office worker in Lucan, Co Dublin, she remembers the Thursday morning, July 19th, 1984, when she and two colleagues, Karen Gearon (then 20 and the shop-steward) and Alma Russell (then 18), were on the checkouts at the Henry Street branch.
“There was a union instruction that we weren’t to handle South African goods. We actually had to go around the shop two days before to see what were South African goods.
“I remember the woman coming toward the tills with the grapefruit in her basket and we were all looking at each other wondering which till she’d pick. She came to me. I told her it was a union instruction and I couldn’t handle the grapefruit. She was happy to leave them back, but a manageress was watching and I was taken off the till and suspended.”
Russell remembers she and Gearon “turned off our registers and walked out with Mary to go up to the union”. On the way out, they met colleague Liz Deasy (then 16), coming into work.
“It was my first job,” says Deasy. “It was the ’80s and I was lucky to have a job, but my father was very strong on unions. In our house you knew if there was a picket you did not cross it. So when they told me there would be a picket on the shop I just said, ‘Well I’m coming with you’.”
None knew what they were getting into. “It was a gorgeous sunny day,” recalls Deasy. “I thought, ‘This is great. I hope it lasts to the end of the weekend’.”
The picket would be there, on the shop’s three entrances, manned by 11 young women from the inner city, for two years and nine months. They took pay cuts, from about £90 a week when they had been working, to a strike pay of £21 and later £23 a week.
Though at first largely unaware of apartheid, they became quickly politicised. Gearon recalls a black South African, Nimrod Sedaka, who joined the picket regularly and who told them about apartheid. “The longer the strike went on the stronger we got. We were determined we were not going back to work if we had to handle South African goods. I think even if there was a union instruction to go back, we wouldn’t have.”
They recall support they got, but also recall the abuse from both non-striking colleagues and also the public.
“People were asking why we were striking for ‘niggers’,” says Russell. “Co-workers passing the picket would be physically abusive, push us around. They’d drop their tea bags out of the canteen window above, onto us.”
Their invitation to meet Archbishop Desmond Tutu in London in October 1984 was, says Gearon, a “turning point”. She, Manning and union official Brendan Archbold got a ferry to Holyhead and drove on to London. “It raised the profile of what we were fighting for nationally and internationally. That was hugely important.”
The strike was eventually lifted in April 1987 when Ireland became the first country to ban South African goods.
The strike, says Gearon, was “vitally important” and she is “extremely proud” to have been part of it. “People told us at the time we were fools, asked why we were striking for something going on thousands of miles away.”
Deasy too says she is “extremely proud. There were times we wondered were we getting anywhere, was anyone listening to us. It took us almost three years but we got what we wanted. It took Nelson Mandela 27 years. If you believe something is right and it’s worth fighting for you’ll get there in the end.”
Gearon agrees the women should be at the funeral. “We should be there. It would a wonderful acknowledgment of our contribution to Mandela’s achievement.”
Archbold too, when asked, says: “Yes, I’d love to see some or all of them there, especially Mary who never got to meet Mandela when he was in Dublin in 1990. I think she should be there.”
Fianna Fáil spokesman on foreign affairs Brendan Smith has also called for the strikers to be represented at Mandela’s funeral.
Nine of the strikers met Mandela at a lunch in Dublin 1990. Two of them, including Manning, were in Australia at the time.