This article is part HWO’s “Road to Repeal” series, a collaboration with the Activist Histories of Ireland Conference, a conference exploring histories of political activism in modern Ireland, which took place in Hertford College, Oxford, 12-13 July.
The three-year long Dunnes Stores dispute which ran from 1984 to 1987 has become totemic both in the memory of Irish trade unionism and in the history of the global civil society movement against apartheid in South Africa. Beginning with a walk-out by a handful of young, predominantly female employees from Dunnes’ Henry Street branch in Dublin in July 1984, after Mary Manning, a 21-year-old cashier and trade unionist refused to handle a South African grapefruit, and ending with a ban on the importation of South African fruit and vegetables by the Irish Government, it is far and away the most recognised manifestation of Irish anti-apartheid activism. The strike has been celebrated in song by Ewan MacColl and Christy Moore, by multiple visiting South African leaders, including Nelson Mandela in his visit to Ireland only months after his release in prison, through memoir and through a 2014 documentary. Two plaques on Henry Street, installed in 2008 and 2015, commemorate the strike, although in an apparent concession to Dunnes, who still operate the store, the target of the industrial action is not mentioned by name.
Yet during the dispute itself, the strikers received tepid support and even outright hostility from the leadership of the Irish trade union movement and from the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) itself. The strike was seen less as a great episode in the history of Irish internationalism, and more as a product of naïve youthful idealism pushed on by a trade union whose militancy was out of step with the political climate, backed up by the far-left, and still worse, physical-force Republicans.
The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) had adopted a position on apartheid in South Africa at its 1981 Congress, which urged affiliated unions and their members to boycott South African goods and to “black” (refuse to handle) them at points of import, distribution and sale. For three years this motion had sat on ICTU’s statute books and done little. The labour movement did little to involve itself in anti-apartheid activism, and when the shopworkers’ union IDATU (the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union) adopted a fairly pro forma anti-apartheid resolution in Spring 1984, the prospect of militant action would not have been apparent.
What distinguished IDATU from the rest of the trade union movement was its maverick General Secretary, John Mitchell. Espousing a militant Left Republicanism, an unpopular position within the labour movement in the mid-1980s. Mitchell was also a lonely voice in calling for the inclusion of sexual orientation in employment equality legislation a decade before homosexuality was legalised in the Republic of Ireland, and as a prominent supporter of travellers’ rights.
IDATU had shifted abruptly against the grain in an Irish labour movement moving away from militancy and towards the long-term Social Partnership with employers and the state. Mitchell had taken over leadership of a union he described as “on the verge of extinction” in Spring of 1983, and in an interview with Labour Left a year later, claimed IDATU had spent more on strike pay in the last twelve months than it had in the previous eighty years of existence. The prevailing narrative of the Dunnes strike has often emphasised the strikers’ youth and inexperience, but most of the anti-apartheid strikers were veterans of the 1983 national strike at Dunnes; one of them, Theresa Mooney, in her early 20s, had played a leading role.
The initial wave of enthusiasm which greeted the strike in July faded following two rounds of negotiation between IDATU and Dunnes in August and September of 1984 (the second of which occurred after the Managing Director of Dunnes, Ben Dunne, had unexpectedly arrived at IDATU’s Head Office demanding to meet with the union’s officers), the dispute reached a stalemate.
ICTU, in spite of its 1981 position, refused to engage in any effort to have Dunnes ‘blacked’. Instead, the task of maintaining a physical presence at the store was left to the strikers and their far-left and Republican supporters. John Mitchell later recalled Donal Nevin, ICTU’s General Secretary, telling him that “boycotts are not part of the tradition of the Western trade union movement”. Nevin’s persistent snubbing of the Dunnes strikers, and his private remonstration with them following an event celebrating the strike hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin was picked up by the radical journalist and activist Eamonn McCann, who made the disagreement public in article in Magill in April 1985. The IAAM wrote privately to McCann following the article’s publication highlighting Nevin’s long-term support for the ANC-backed South African Congress of Trade Unions, but the reputational damage was irreparable.
The IAAM itself, under the leadership of Kader Asmal, a prominent ANC member, initially welcomed the strike as ‘an unparalleled development in Irish trade unionism’. Three months later, Asmal told IDATU that “the strike had gone on long enough”. The strikers refused to budge, with the union’s support. What they were not informed was that Asmal was also attempting to circumvent the union altogether, and of his own volition (there is no record in the minutes of the IAAM Executive of authorisation being given for him to do so) wrote to Ben Dunne in a personal capacity seeking a settlement expressing a fear that matters could become uncontrollable if “dangerous tendencies” battened onto the issue.
The Dunnes strike, particularly during its “activist” stage (picketing was suspended when the Government agreed to consider prohibiting the importation of South African fresh produce altogether) is perhaps best understood as a campaign which existed somewhat on the margins of the official anti-apartheid movement, and has considerable parallels with the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy maintained by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (the subject of this recent study). The first visit the Dunnes strikers made to Britain was an “unauthorised” speaking tour organised by City Group and its sympathisers. It was only when picketing ceased that the strike was fully embraced beyond the its initial reservoir of support.
As for Mitchell, he was dislodged as the union’s General Secretary in 1989, officially for allowing Sinn Féin to meet on union premises without Executive sanction. IDATU merged into Mandate in 1994, becoming one of Ireland’s largest trade unions. Mandate was involved in a succession of further disputes with Dunnes in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2015, 3,000 marched in Dublin calling for the company in introduce secure contracts and concede union recognition. Mandate’s General Secretary John Douglas was berated on national television with the claim that strike action would beget instability discouraging foreign investment in Ireland, much as the anti-apartheid strikers had been 30 years before. The strikers, hailed by Nelson Mandela as he made Ireland his first European visit following his release from prison in 1990, attended his funeral with union support. They remain politically active, having called for an Irish boycott of the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel earlier this year.
Pádraig Durnin is a PhD researcher in History at Queen’s University Belfast. His research focuses on international solidarity activism in Ireland in the second-half of the twentieth century, in particular the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. His broader academic interests include the far-left in Ireland and Britain (particularly Scotland) post-1945. He tweets @padraigfd.