Resolute and unassuming trade unionist

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

Inez McCormack, Born: September 28th, 1943 Died: January 21st, 2013 When Inez McCormack learned in 2011 that she had been listed as one of Newsweek’s “150 women who shake the world” for her work campaigning for social justice, she said the honour “highlights . . . people who have been excluded, modestly and determinedly making their own change”.

She will be mourned by world leaders and by those who clean their offices, all of them inspired by her certainty that it was possible and necessary to change the world, and her warmth and encouraging laughter as they set about it.

Former president Mary Robinson praised her capacity for friendship: “It was from Inez I learned that you can achieve much more if you don’t need the credit.”

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said McCormack had been a major influence and spoke of their friendship in an address she gave during her visit to Ireland last year. She noted that when they spoke, although Inez knew she was dying, “she wanted to talk about how we had to keep working to bring people together”.

She was proud that the project she chaired, the Participation and Practise of Rights, had, in December, been used as an example of best practice by the UN High Commission for Human Rights. The project is based on McCormack’s deep conviction that the Northern Ireland peace process was dangerously incomplete.

“You cannot have a peace settlement unless the most excluded are involved in making change,” she argued. She led a coalition that campaigned for human rights measures in the Belfast Agreement.

Hated snobbish attitudes

Inez Murphy was born into a lower middle-class Protestant family in Co Down. A lifelong habit of breaking new ground began when she was one of the first children from a non-fee-paying state primary school to go to a local grammar school. She hated its snobbish attitudes and left at aged 16 to work in her father’s business.

In 1963, the year prime minister Terence O’Neill said his task would be to “transform Ulster”, she joined the civil service. She recalled being asked at interview how she would feel if her brother, who had emigrated to South Africa, “married a black”. She left to get A-levels and a place at Magee College in Derry and finished her degree at Trinity College Dublin.

In 1967, she met and fell in love with Vincent McCormack, from a working-class Catholic family in Derry’s Bogside. They lived in London, with Inez modelling for Biba and getting paid in Mary Quant dresses.

They set off to hitch around Europe, but returned when they saw televised coverage of the October 1968 RUC attack on a civil rights march in Derry. They were on the People’s Democracy march which was attacked by loyalists at Burntollet. She recalled the feeling of relief when she saw police officers, having been brought up to respect the security forces, only to realise they were supporting those attacking the student marchers. She was regarded by her own people as a rebel.

After she and Vincent married, their flat in Belfast became a hub for political discussions, though McCormack commented that “apart from Bernadette [Devlin]”, women were in the background. She got a job as a social worker in the impoverished Ballymurphy estate during the most violent early years of the NI conflict.

In 1976 she became the first female official in the National Union of Public Employees. She broke new ground by encouraging part-time women workers in low-paid jobs, including hospital cleaners and home helps, to join the union. Her efforts to raise issues of women’s inequality were discouraged by male leaders who called them divisive distractions. She found the women’s movement inhospitable to married women with children. McCormack was elected to the NI committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) in 1980 and became the first woman to chair it in 1984, and later the first woman president of Ictu in 1999.

She was a signatory to the MacBride principles to address employment discrimination against Catholics and lobbied hard in the US to persuade big investors in the NI economy to insist on their implementation, against fierce opposition by the British government.

Their adoption was one of her greatest achievements and paved the way for the involvement of the Clinton administration in the peace process.

‘True grit’

McCormack and those she called the “securocrats” at Stormont were natural enemies. Patricia McKeown, regional secretary of Unison, noted that it was a Tory secretary of state who told McCormack: “I have worked out that you are loved in low places and loathed in high places”. McKeown said McCormack “took that as affirmation that she was doing the right thing”.

President Michael D Higgins praised her courage and “true grit”.

She described the marriage of their daughter Anne to Mark, last autumn, as “the happiest day of my life”.

She delighted in her grandchildren, Maisie and Jamie.

In 2011 her life story was included in Seven, a play which wove together the stories of international women activists. It has been translated into many languages and performed around the world. She was played in New York by Meryl Streep, who sent a message of solidarity to her at Derry’s hospice, quoting lines from Thornton Wilder: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, the bridge is love, The only survival, the only meaning.”

She is survived by her husband Vinny, daughter Anne, son-in-law Mark and her grandchildren.