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On July 19 1984, a young Dunnes Stores shop steward by the name of Karen Gearon gave an instruction to her colleagues not to handle any South African goods, in protest against the apartheid regime in the country at the time. When a 21-year-old checkout cashier Mary Manning refused to put some fruit through the till, she was suspended by the company, resulting in a bitter strike that lasted three years. Ultimately, this resulted in, not for the first time, the Government of Ireland doing the right thing once it had exhausted all other options and eventually South African goods were prohibited from sale in Ireland until the despicable apartheid regime was dismantled.
Three years previously, one of the most shameful episodes in the chequered and often inglorious history of Irish sport unfolded when the Irish rugby team toured South Africa at the height of apartheid. In that very same year, unfortunately touring was not an option for Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who had his passport confiscated by the South African government for having the temerity to travel overseas and highlight the racist atrocities being perpetrated in his homeland. Tutu’s South African catholic counterpart Archbishop Denis Hurley, the son of two Irish parents who were lighthouse keepers on the famed Robben Island, joined with much of Irish civic and religious society in condemning the tour, saying that “both black and white South Africans will interpret the tour as an acceptance of the policy of apartheid”. Undeterred, Ireland toured and lost both the test matches, having miserably failed all morality tests in undertaking the enterprise in the first place. Several Irish players nobly refused to tour, including the mercurial fly-half Tony Ward, Hugo MacNeill, Donal Spring and the incomparable Moss Keane.
Keane was joined in his rejection of the apartheid policy by fellow UCC alumnus, medical student Cathal Coughlan of the band Microdisney, who at the height of the Dunnes dispute a few years later released their seminal album We hate you South African bastards! Similarly, the rugby tour met with opprobrium from the secretary of the Irish Anti-Apartheid movement, a firebrand young chartered accountant by the name of Joan Burton.
In some respects, the dark days of apartheid seem like a dirty relic of a lamentable past. In terms of our own part in it, what is notable is the courage and defiance of the outsider, the maverick, the little guy or gal shining like a beacon against the cowardice and inertia of the blue-blood establishment of business, sport and the state. We must be always mindful, though, that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. Which side of history will we be on?
In this spirit, we again need to question why Irish medical training colleges, registered charities who by act of Government command the compulsory membership, subscription and patronage of all Irish doctors, are engaging with governments in countries like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. These are states whose records on human rights are every bit as bad and worse than South Africa in the 1980s on key issues including torture, religious freedom, freedom of media and political expression, corporal punishment and state interference with the practise of medicine.
We must be always mindful that those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it
Quite where engaging with these regimes fits into their missions is beyond my understanding. The Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons have proven themselves in the domestic and international realms in recent years as being progressive, innovative and thoughtful institutions, taking on admirable public health work and developing their educational facilities to a standard unimaginable a short time ago. That said, there are many other issues around their core mission in Ireland that could be better addressed with the time and energies currently spent on these overseas boondoggles.
Regarding international engagement, if this is desirable then there are vast tracts of the developing world that would benefit from their expertise without plying the wares of Irish medical training in countries richer than we could ever hope to be. I would find it hard to imagine that an undertaking not to engage with any country or regime that fails to adhere to the principles of the UN Charter on Human rights would be anything other than resoundingly welcomed by the vast majority of rank and file members and Fellows of the Colleges.
In the 1980s, it was two brave young women working in a supermarket and a future Tánaiste, among others, who stood tall against oppression and inequality. With a plurality of candidates for the upcoming election at time of writing being female, there is a very good chance that the next President of the RCPI will be the first woman President in its long and distinguished history.
Will it take a woman again to make a stand for human rights on behalf of a famous Irish institution?
Time will tell.