A grain of truth

On 24 June a full-page article on the Ranks dispute appeared in the Irish Independent. The article was called "The Breaking of Ranks" and was advertised prominently on the front page. Inside it was claimed that Independent journalists Michael Brophy and PJ Cunningham had gone "behind the scenes to catalogue the lead-up to the fall of the Ranks empire in Ireland".


The article attempted to show that a left-wing militant shop steward Harry Fleming had single-handedly destroyed a thriving business. The article's bias against Harry Fleming is clear throughout. He is described as "defiant", "determined", "militant", "committed", "nationalistic" and "left-wing", among other things.


"The Breaking of Ranks" contains a mixture of fact and comment. Most of the fact is inaccurate and distorted; the comment is biased and misleading. The article begins:


On Tuesday, May 10, last, Harry Fleming, a stocky, bearded mill worker and the man who had been singularly responsible for the orchestration of the bitter Ranks dispute, faced John Horgan, a Government appointed mediator across the board room of the company's flour mill in Phibsboro, Dublin. It was Horgan's first day in his role as mediator in one of the most bizarre industrial disputes ever to hit an Irish company. He faced Fleming across the room which had been occupied by workers since February and was met with a stare which, at once, indicated defiance and determination.


Horgan, vice-chairman of the Labour Court and a man prepared to get the Ranks workers the best possible deal, bluntly told the figure opposite him that there was little chance that the demands for which he had been fighting now for three months would be met. In one quick movement, Fleming slammed his fist on to the table which separated them and poured out the vitriolic philosophy that has brought what was once one of the country's most flourishing companies to the edge of liquidation. He agreed he was fighting a hopeless cause; that his demands could never be met. But he was adamant that he was prepared to fight the Government, the company or anybody else who failed to give him what he wanted. And in an outburst that highlighted the deep resentment which has built up over the five-month long dispute Fleming defiantly added: "We might never get what we want but we'll have f..... Ranks".


No meeting took place on Tuesday May 10. The meetings were on May 6 and 9. Harry Fleming is not stocky. Nor is he "singularly responsible for the orchestration of the bitter Ranks dispute".


It was not Horgan's first day as mediator; he was appointed on 2 May. Horgan was not met with "a stare which, at once, indicated defiance and determination". According to Horgan, the discussions were "relaxed and wide-ranging".


Fleming denies that he slammed his fist on the table and says that he was standing nine feet from the table through both meetings in Ranks boardroom. This has been confirmed to Magill by one other Ranks worker who was present at both meetings and by John Horgan, Vice President of the Labour Court, who was also present at both meetings.


Both Fleming and Horgan deny that any "vitriolic philosophy" was "poured out". Both Fleming and Horgan also deny that Fleming "defiantly added" or ever said "we might never get what we want but we'll have f. ..... Ranks".


Brophy and Cunningham do not claim that the Ranks workers involved in the sit-in are selfish. Rather, they find a credible "expert", ITCWU Vice President, Eddie Browne, to tell us: "The 15 men are a selfish band, only interested in their own welfare." No evidence is given to support this statement. The writers fail to point out that the Ranks rationalisation plan, which would have made 40 workers redundant, didn't affect Harry Fleming. He would have kept his job. His occupation of the mill in support of the other workers can hardly be described as "selfish".

Brophy and Cunningham dismiss the workers' point of view in favour of their own view that the workers are entirely at fault.


"The Ranks dispute has been projected", according to Cunningham and Brophy, "as a classic fight between a giant multinational conglomerate and a small group of oppressed workers ... It is far from that." There is no evidence given to support this opinion. There is, however, substantial evidence to the contrary.


Ranks (Ireland) is a subsidiary of the UK-based RHM Foods. The closure of Ranks (Ireland) was due to a deliberate decision not to modernise production processes when other Irish millers were doing so. This has been confirmed to Magill by the IDA. Ranks, instead, modernised their distribution network, built a new office block and bought new trucks. RHM Foods now has a readymade distribution network through which to export their flour to Ireland. There is nothing about this in the Independent article.
The Ranks offices in Phibsboro were "wrecked" by the workers, according to the Independent. This reporter has visited the offices twice in the last two months and has seen no evidence of this. It is difficult not to conclude on the evidence of the article that Brophy and Cunningham are writing with considerable bias against the Ranks workers. It is ironic that on 26 June the Independent claimed that the Ranks dispute was over - it was not - and implied that Brophy and Cunningham's article was instrumental in its solution.


When contacted by Magill, PJ Cunningham stated that the article was "led" by Michael Brophy, although he emphasised that he was not passing the buck. Michael Brophy stated that he stood over everything in the article. ''I'm not in the business of inventing things. You can believe who you want."