“The protest by Mary Manning and her colleagues was exceptional—they were joined only by a single worker at another store—and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions withheld even rhetorical backing for over a year. Nor at first did their actions appear to engender much sympathy among members of the public… Public perceptions of the strike were to change, however. There was growing support for the movement, partly as a consequence of a meeting in London in December between the strikers and Archbishop Desmond Tutu while he was on his way to collect the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.”
– Professor Tom Logue, History Ireland
In the summer of 1984 Bishop Desmond Tutu, then Secretary–General of the South African Council of Churches (SACC), accepted Don Mullan’s invitation to visit Ireland as the guest of AFrI. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship between both men.
Shortly after Tutu’s visit to Ireland, Christine Mulvey, an AFrI colleague, informed Mullan that an anti-apartheid strike had begun at the Henry Street branch of Dunnes Stores in Dublin, and recommended he investigate. After visiting the picket line and meeting with Mary Manning, Karen Gearon and other strikers Mullan recommended that AFrI should support the young strikers in whatever way possible.
Fortuitously, that same year, Desmond Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize. Mullan informed him about the strike and Tutu, who had already begun to call for economic sanctions against the apartheid state, agreed to publicly back the young shop workers. At Mullan’s suggestion, Tutu agreed to meet
representatives of the Dunnes Stores Strikers at Heathrow Airport en route to Oslo. The meeting proved to be a major turning point in the strike. For the duration of the strike Mullan was Tutu’s adviser.
In 1985 Mullan negotiated with the SACC and Bishop Tutu, then the 1st black Bishop of Johannesburg, to invite the Dunnes Strikers to South Africa for the first anniversary of their strike. Along with the strikers he was detained at Jan Smuts Airport and refused entry. The strikers, their trade union representative, Brendan Archbald, and Mullan, were all handed a legal document before being escorted onto a London bound flight. The document informed them that the non-visa privilege, available to Irish and British citizens, had been withdrawn by the apartheid regime.
Mullan raised the funding for the majority of the strikers to travel to South Africa.
Later in 1985 Principle Management called Mullan and asked him to bring the Dunnes Stores Strikers to Windmill Studios as U2’s Bono wished to record with them his contribution to the Artists Against Apartheid song, I ain’t gonna play Sun City. Don collected some half dozen strikers from the picket-line on Henry Street and brought them to the studio where Bono welcomed them.
In April 1987, the same month the strike ended, Don Mullan’s first child, Therese, was born. The Dunnes Stores Strikers, despite their hardship, bought her a baby high-chair, which all of the Mullan’s three children enjoyed.
At Mullan’s invitation, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his wife, Leah, became joint patrons of AFrI.