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Dunnes Stores, South Africa, Gaza: A Tale of Two Boycotts

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

29 February 2024

Anti-apartheid activist Nimrod Sejake with Dunnes Stores strikers.

Reference has been made on a number of occasions to the heroic actions of the Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid strikers in 1984 who spent nigh on three years on strike because they refused to handle South African merchandise.  It has been pointed to as a success story for boycotts and one to emulate.  The real story of the strike points to the difficulties we now face in implementing a real boycott of Israel.

I used to go down to the picket line at the Dunnes branch in Henry St, every Wednesday as we had a half day at school and on Saturdays when there was no school and then more regularly once I had sat my Leaving Cert exam and was like many young people in 1980s Ireland, unemployed.  So, I recently bought a copy of Mary Manning’s autobiographical account of the strike, Striking Back: The Untold Story of an Anti-Apartheid Striker (Collins Press).  It brought to mind many of the instances and difficulties that they faced and it raises many questions for those who wish to point to them as an example to follow.

The strikers were implementing a trade union resolution, and at first knew little of the reality of South Africa, something they corrected relatively quickly, thanks in no small part to a South African exile, Nimrod Sejake, who turned up to join them on the picket line , an activist who had been arrested as part of the infamous Treason Trial.  Mary Manning is full of praise for Nimrod and rightly so.  Others do not come out so well and it is worth remembering the reality of that strike as it tells us some of the things that need to happen if we want to see similar action in relation to Israel.

The first thing that jumps out of the pages, early on, is that the trade bureaucracy did not give them any support and even their own trade union, IDATU (now called Mandate) was very reluctant to support them and what support they got was down to their official Brendan Archbold who was a stalwart in supporting them and the then head of the union John Mitchell.  At every twist and turn they had to fight the executive of IDATU, whilst the rest of the trade union movement ran for cover.  There will be no similar type of action around the Zionists unless it is put to the bureaucracy and they are challenged over their inaction in the midst of a genocide.  Karen Gearon, the shop steward at Dunnes Store made a call at the National March in Dublin on February 17th for the trade union movement to stop talking and take action.  It is not something that has been seriously echoed by others.  Neither People Before Profit TDs or the IPSC have ever made a clear call for action from the trade union movement.  It should be a central part of any boycott movement now.  It is all well and good picketing Starbucks, but stopping the importation of Israeli goods would be more important and will only happen if the bureaucracy is pushed to it.  The history of PbP is one of cowering in the shadow of the bureaucrats and never putting it up to them on any issue.  They frequently share polite platforms with the bureaucrats and never challenge them.  Their calls, when made are generic and are in passing.  Their website and the IPSC site is limited to a consumer boycott with calls for the government, not workers, to take action.

I was also reminded by the book how the great and good in Irish society stood by whilst these workers were on strike.  The Minister for Labour at the time was Ruairí Quinn a member of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM) and yet he did nothing.  He was not the only mealy-mouthed figure in Irish society, nor indeed in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The head of the Catholic Bishops Aid Agency, Trócaire, Bishop Eamon Casey privately wrote to IDATU early on describing the strike as ‘economically harmful to the already impoverished Black South Africans’ and the strikers request for support from the Catholic Church was described as impertinent and just in case anyone doubted how he saw himself, he was of the view that both he and Trócaire should have been consulted before the strike took place.  Their currency now is much devalued in Ireland but there are others like them who also think they have a veto on decisions.  He was later forced to publicly back the strike having been embarrassed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s decision to present two strikers to the world at his London press conference enroute to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.  Though that took a while and meantime nuns proudly scabbed and crossed the picket line.  Casey’s attempts at sabotage and his later hypocrisy in belatedly supporting the strike, should not be forgotten.  At the time he was seen as a moral guardian, his plundering of church funds to keep his lover and his child comfortable was not known.  There are lots of other figures like him around now, who we might expect to support workers implementing a boycott, but might not when faced with the reality of it.

Another figure who comes out badly in it, is Kader Asmal the head of the IAAM. After three months of strike action, he met with John Mitchell and Brendan Archbold and told them to call off the strike, that it had served its purpose and that he was pulling his support.  When Desmond Tutu invited the strikers to South Africa he privately told them he would not support them going as it was a breach of the cultural boycott of South Africa.  Their trip to the country and the refusal of the Apartheid regime to let them in and their detention at the airport was a pivotal moment in the strike.  Upon their return to Ireland, Asmal was one of the people to rush to the airport and give interviews and bask in the glory, as his position opposing the trip was never made public.  He comes across very badly in the book.  I recall him asking me for information on South African goods coming through the port where I had begun working and Brendan Archbold telling me not to trust him, that he was a sleiveen and would hang me out to dry.  He was, and like him there are others just like that on the issue of Gaza.  The contrast with Nimrod Sejake could not have been greater.  He was a working class militant who suffered greatly and enjoyed none of the middle class trappings of Kader Asmal’s life in Ireland and unlike Asmal he had never crossed a picket line, something Asmal did in Trinity College where he worked, scabbing during a strike there.  There are Palestinian equivalents to Asmal and also to Sejake.  The IPSC pretends otherwise.

So, what are the lessons of the Dunnes Stores strike?  One is that it wasn’t just a consumer boycott, it was a workers’ boycott and they were left high and dry by many of those who would have been expected to support them.  If we are going to call for workers action, various people and bodies need to be challenged and would have to commit themselves publicly to it.  So far this is absent.  PbP and the IPSC are not putting it up to any of the institutions.  In fact, the UNITE union complained about a sit in at Axa Insurance company saying it was harmful to the workers.  The sit in was not organised by the IPSC but by CATU and Dublin for Gaza.  It turns out that UNITE is a bit like IDATU.  It has also passed resolutions supporting the campaign of BDS and yet “according to union insiders, Axa is Unite’s insurer in Ireland – and Unite’s designated provider of hotel accommodation is the Leonardo hotel group, which is part-owned by the Israeli Fattal group.”(1)  UNITE members taking action would most likely be shunned by their own union.   Just like the head of the IAAM, Kader Asmal had tried to undermine the Dunnes Stores strike, there are those in the IPSC who would run for the hills were workers to take action against Israel.

So, we do need to emulate the Dunnes Stores strikers, but we need to be clear about the challenges and the opposition we would face from the trade union movement itself, the Catholic Church (they never went away either) and sectors of the IPSC.  It is time for action, but it is also high time that both PbP and the IPSC made clear calls for action and workers are not left hung out to dry, should they take action.


(1)Skwakbox (15/12/2023) Outrage builds over Unite’s use of Israel-linked firms as protestors occupy Axa Dublin office

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