Former union official Brendan Archbold who was involved in the Dunnes Stores strike in the 1980s when workers refused to handle goods sourced from apartheid South Africa tells RTÉ.ie about his recent meeting with Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu

RTÉ.ie: Why did you decide to make the trip now?

Brendan Archbold: I was involved with the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement from around the late 60s and always had abhorrence for racism in general and Apartheid in particular.

I was in South Africa as a EU observer at the first democratic elections held there in 1994. Following that trip I promised to return for a family holiday and, after retiring from the EU in 2006, I finally had the time to make good on that promise.

RTÉ.ie: Explain what it was like to meet Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu?

BA: I first met Bishop Tutu (as he was then) in 1985 in London with Mary Manning and Karen Gearon and I met him again briefly some years later in Dublin.

We met in Cape Town this month and he is still the same sparkling, animated, articulate, intelligent and enthusiastic advocate for social justice that I remember from the previous meetings Archbishop Tutu has the gift of making the most profound of statements in a language that is brief, often witty and always hits the nail right on the head. Despite the progress achieved in South Africa, he still speaks out on the struggles in other parts of the world such as Palestine, Burma, and Zimbabwe.

The meeting with Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg was my first time the meet the former President of South Africa and I was quite nervous beforehand. I should have known that it would be a meeting without formality of any kind because Madiba (as he is called) does not go in for any of the trappings of office.

I was with my wife Roseleen and our two boys Michael (18) and Dylan (12). We were directed into an office expecting to be briefed as to the protocol for such a meeting but instead Mr Mandela was sitting behind a desk with his hand extended to welcome us without any fuss whatsoever.

It was a very moving time for us all. My wife shook his hand and asked him if she could kiss him. He responded with a laugh and said 'of course you can kiss me'.

I had intended bringing him greetings from the Dunnes strikers and from various trade union groups but all my minor tasks were quickly forgotten in the excitement of meeting a man who has been an inspiration to me and millions of others over many decades.

I felt that I had given our two sons a great gift by arranging such a meeting. As they grow older and discuss the great political leaders of the last century, they can boast that 'I met Nelson Mandela'.

RTÉ.ie: What happened at the meeting and what were their views on the strike you staged?

BA: We attended a service in St Georges Cathedral in Cape Town and I was invited by Archbishop Tutu to make a brief address to the congregation about the Dunnes workers and the sanctions introduced by the Irish Government as a result of the strike.

After the service we adjourned to a nearby restaurant for coffee and I was approached by many members of the congregation.

They shook my hand and thanked me for the solidarity displayed by the Dunnes workers during their long strike between 1984 and 1987.

The Archbishop has repeatedly acknowledged the moral leadership given by striker Mary Manning and her colleagues at a time when Apartheid in South Africa was at its most brutal in the mid 80s.

Mr Mandela met the strikers when he was made a Freeman of Dublin in 1994. Mr Mandela mentioned to us that the Irish were traditionally a people involved in struggle such as our fight for independence from the British.

RTÉ.ie: Have you travelled to South Africa before, what are your impressions of the country?

BA: I travelled to South Africa in 1985 with the Dunnes Strikers when we were refused entry by the old Apartheid regime. We were held under very heavily armed guard for about seven hours and put on the next plane home.

As I mentioned earlier, I was an EU. observer at the first democratic elections to be held in South Africa in 1994.

I was left with a number of impressions about South Africa this time round: The legacy of Apartheid is still very much in evidence with serious poverty, terrible housing in the shanty towns and a very real concern about the level of crime throughout the country.

Allegations of corruption in Government are a hot topic but then we know a thing or two about that subject ourselves here in Ireland.

On the other hand however, there appears to be a great buzz about the country. While we saw many depressing sites in the shanty towns, we also saw some inspiring community projects where township residents organised schools with three meals a day provided for young children who probably would not attend school on a regular basis at all were it not for the efforts of the community activists.

The land itself is strikingly beautiful and we were greeted very warmly by South Africans wherever we went. Young Afrikaners also appear to be quite positive about the future but a few of the older generation seem to hark back to the old days and appear less than committed to the new South Africa. There was some concern expressed by a number of white South Africans we met as to how the country might fare out when Mr Mandela dies. He is still seen by most South Africans as a very uniting force between all South Africans.

RTÉ.ie: Was the strike about Apartheid or standing up to an employer?

BA: The 1984 annual conference of the union adopted a motion from our Limerick branch calling for a boycott of all South African goods and services.

Unlike many unions (then and now) the new union policy was circulated to all members and they were urged to act accordingly.

Many members boycotted South African produce in employments such as Clery’s, Bests Mens Shop, Roches Stores and Quinnsworth.

Only one employer however, Dunnes Stores, took disciplinary action against a member as a result of the boycott. As soon as Dunnes worker Mary Manning was suspended, we placed official on the Henry Street store and the Dunnes Stores Strike against Apartheid was born.

The strike was certainly about demonstrating solidarity with our fellow-workers in South Africa.

Because of the reaction of Dunnes however, it developed into a separate struggle against the company.

RTÉ.ie: Do you have any stand-out memories from when you were on strike?

BA: It is worth remembering that as a trade union official I was not, strictly speaking, on strike.

As the union organiser I was paid at all times. It was the strikers, one of whom lost her house when she was unable to meet her mortgage repayments, who made the sacrifices.

But yes, there are many great memories such as the 1985 trip to South Africa, the great support from people like Bono, Ronnie Drew, Niall Toibin and many others.

My own particular favourite was standing on the picket line listening to that great Irish jazz musician, Keith Donald busking outside Dunnes in Henry Street and giving the money he collected to the striking workers. 

On a personal level was the strike worth it? As I indicated above, being a union official I wasn’t on strike but the workers involved (I keep in touch with them all) say that they do not regret a moment of the strike. Many of them say they were changed in a very personal way by the strike and that they are different and better people for it.

RTÉ.ie: Did the strike change the role of unions in Ireland?

BA: Sadly not. The Dunnes Stores Strike against Apartheid was probably the finest example of trade union solidarity ever.

We never had a strike like it before and interestingly, we have not had one like it since. Why not? Trade unions have not 'globalised' to the same extent as capital. The international dimension has yet to be achieved and we have to start looking beyond the immediate confines of our members, our industry and even our country.

Older trade unionists like myself have always championed the cause of internationalism. It is ironic that capital has overtaken us so completely. But it is not too late for us to get our act together.

RTÉ.ie: Do you think workers today would be willing to go on strike something similar?

BA: It does not have to be a strike lasting almost three years.

That depends on the employers and how they react to the very legitimate concerns of trade unions to the plight of workers in the developing world.

But I have no doubt whatsoever that there are many brave people out there like strikers Mary Manning and Karen Gearon.

All we need now are the trade union leaders to show the way as the IDATU leadership did in 1984.

RTÉ.ie: Could a situation similar to the one that occurred at Dunnes Stores with South African oranges happen again today with another country’s produce?

It could and just might. The 2007 conference of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions adopted two resolutions calling for a boycott of Israeli produce in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their struggle for an end to the Israeli occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Congress has gone as far as it can.

It is up the individual unions now to take up the issue from here.

Remember, it was the unions affiliated to Congress who voted the resolution into existence in the first place. Logically therefore they should now act together to make the policy a reality by adopting similar resolutions at their own conferences and passing the policy position on to their members on the shop floor.

I have every confidence that Irish workers will not be found wanting if our trade union leader take the initiative.