First woman Ictu president dies

Mon, Jan 21, 2013, 00:00

Inez McCormack, one of the giants of the trade union and women’s rights movement since the 1960s, has died aged 69.

Ms McCormack, who was the first woman president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions from 2000 to 2002, was diagnosed with cancer some months ago.

She died this afternoon at the Foyle Hospice in Derry.

Born into a working class Protestant family in Belfast she left school aged 16 and studied social work at Queens University, Belfast and Trinity College, Dublin.

Perhaps an unlikely campaigner for Catholic civil rights perhaps, she took part in a People’s Democarcy march in 1969, with her boyfriend, Derry Catholic Vinny McCormack. From Belfast to Derry in 1969, the march was famously attacked by loyalists at Burntollet.

“I saw the police and thought they would act but they started chatting amicably to the counter demonstrators. I was witnessing what later came to be called collusion,” she said in a 2008 interview.

She became prominent in the movement and went on to campaign tirelessly for low-paid workers’ rights first with the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE, in which she was the first woman official) and later with public sector union Unison.

She played an important behind-the-scenes role in the run up to the 1998 Belfast Agreement and became a close friend of outgoing US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Ms Clinton had a number of telephone conversations with her in recent weeks.

It will, however, be for her life-long commitment to women’s rights that she will be best remembered.

She was a founder member of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fair Employment Commission in Northern Ireland in 1976.

Most recently, in 2006 she founded the Belfast-based Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) , a grass-roots, cross community organisation working particularly in disadvantaged areas.

President Michael D Higgins said he was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Inez McCormack.

"Inez was a passionate and committed human rights activist who fought all her life and in so many settings for the creation of a fairer society for workers, for minorities, and for women. In her pursuit of a better and more equal world she demonstrated courage, integrity and true grit in pushing against the boundaries of exclusion," he said.

He said she had left behind a great legacy and he extended his deepest sympathies to her family and friends.

Ictu president

Eugene McGlone described her passion, in her campaigning work for 'forgotten' workers as “unstinting”.

Siptu president Jack O'Connor said Ms McCormack’s work "as a defender of working people and campaigner for peace has helped shape modern Ireland".

"The level of energy and commitment she brought to the many campaigns and causes she championed acted as an inspiration to others," he said.

"Her life’s work spanned many fields, including defending workers rights in the face of the onslaught of the 1980s Thatcher governments, to advocating for the Travelling community, to a key role in ensuring the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement of 1998 was truly inclusive of all sectors of Northern Ireland’s society."

Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said Ms McCormack had been "a fearless opponent of injustice and a determined champion of civil rights, equality, women’s and workers rights, and fair employment".

"For decades Inez was a tireless and effective advocate from her days in the civil rights movement in the 1960s and through her years as a trade union leader. She was particaurly effective in the USA in support of the MacBride campaign for fair employment in the siux counties."

Orla O’Connor, chief executive of the National Women’s Council, described her death as a “huge loss to Irish women”.

Nicola Browne, policy director with PPR, said staff were “devastated” at her death.

“Inez used her formidable intelligence and warmth to bring about change on the ground for communities and groups that needed it most.”

She had lived in Derry for the past 12 years. She is survived by her husband Vinny, her daughter Anne, son-in-law Mark, grandchildren Maisie and Jamie and by her brother Terry.