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I'll never forget the bravery of the Dunnes Stores strikers

It was our own Rosa Parks moment and, with Nelson Mandela's death, it's being revisited this week. On July 19, 1984, Mary Manning, a 21-year-old Dunnes Stores cashier, refused to check out an item from South Africa .

She and fellow worker Karen Gearon were questioned in two separate upstairs rooms of the Henry Street store and suspended from their jobs.

Eight other workers joined them, and the Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike began. It lasted two-and-a-half years, making it the longest in Irish trade union history.

The workers lost their right to come to work. And a job meant a hell of a lot in 1984. There were no jobs. At the height of the 1980s recession there was 20pc unemployment, with mass emigration and little or no immigration.

Those workers were risking everything for what they knew to be right.

I used to cross the river from college to stand on their picket line, but I hated it. I had nothing in common with those women.

There was I, a privileged college student, when their greatest hopes had extended to a poorly paid job with hardline employers.

I didn't know how to talk to them. But I knew they were great. I nearly got sick when a well-known lefty columnist said in In Dublin magazine that they were "working-class women" being used for a cause which had nothing to do with them.

Those "working-class women" knew exactly what they were doing. They may have had low-paid jobs, but that didn't mean they didn't know the difference between right and wrong.

They would at least have the dignity of doing what was right.

The sincerity of Mary Manning and her fellow workers embarrassed the hell out of the complacent establishment.

When the strike finally ended because the Government banned the import of South African goods, Mary and Karen went back to their jobs.

Karen was eventually sacked, and although she won her unfair dismissal case, that didn't help her get another job. She felt she was black-listed and ended up moving down the country.

Mary emigrated to Australia. She missed the upswing which came to the Irish economy a few years later and she missed the booming 1990s.

I'm sure her life turned out well, but as far as Ireland was concerned she became a fossil from the 1980s. And every time the fossil was dug up we looked worse.

Nelson Mandela was emotional when he met the Dunnes Stores strikers in 1990. He said their solidarity had given him strength in prison.

But Mary Manning wasn't there. Did Dunnes offer to fly her home? Did the Government?

Mary, Karen and some of their fellow strikers had been left on the tarmac of Johannesburg airport in 1985, refused entry by the South African government. And although there is a street in Johannesburg named after Mary, to this day she has never been there.

She says she would like to go. So who's going to send her? Come on, Dunnes. Offer to send Mary out for Nelson Mandela's funeral. I'm sure she'd be welcome. There aren't many people from outside South Africa who more deserve to go.

DECISION

#f Dunnes can't bring themselves to do the right thing, can the Government? Although no definitie decision has been made, it is being reported that every effort would be made to have the strikers at the funeral on Sunday week.

If that's the case, I'm sure for once we'd turn a blind eye to expenses being run up in foreign places. We owe Mary Manning at least that much.

Because she and her fellow workers didn't just add strength to the embargo of South African goods which brought down apartheid.

They showed young Irish "working-class" people in the dim, dark 1980s that they mattered enough to stand up for justice.

And that was a lesson that the middle-class kids like me who stood beside them will never forget.


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