As we slipslide into another winter of discontent, let those who wish to protest learn from one of our great social justice campaigners, a woman who brought verve and laughter as well as steely commitment to the campaigns she organised.
Inez McCormack broke one deadlocked dispute at Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital in 1985 when she and the striking laundry workers she represented, sternly overlooked by a statue of Queen Victoria, pushed trolleyloads of festering laundry out of the hospital's corridors and into the offices of senior management who had, up until then, managed to ignore the smell. The media loved it. And, as Patricia McKeown, now the leader of Unison, the union McCormack led for many years, recalled: "Northern Ireland laughed."
That dispute was swiftly resolved. It was one of hundreds.
Inez – everyone just called her Inez – was a friend of mine. Towards the end of 2012, I emailed her, asking her for a comment for inclusion in something I was writing. She wrote back to say she had just been diagnosed with cancer, that it was inoperable and that she probably had at most a couple of months to live. Soon afterwards, we met to discuss how she might contribute to the legacy of her work. I proposed a documentary and approached Trevor Birney of Fine Point Films – he agreed immediately.
With the support of her husband, Vinny, Inez came home for a few hours from Derry’s Foyle Hospice to record her final interview. “I have accepted,” she told us, “that I am going to die”.
Inez was a pioneer – the first child from her state primary school to go to grammar school, the first female official in her union, the first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. She was, McKeown said, "the battering ram" who broke open doors through which other women could then follow. There was rarely a warm welcome on the other side. Inez said: "There is no pleasure in being the first woman in anything."
She recalled defeats, victories that were overturned, incidents where she was thwarted and undermined, paramilitary threats, mistakes. Looking back, she commented: “It’s important to say, I think for any woman, that if you live through the kind of brutality I lived through, either in the trade union movement or in politics or in struggles against change in the North, if you are not capable of being hurt any more you are not capable of being effective. It is how to keep the balance of not being hurt so much that you are destroyed or become too bitter.”
She reflected on how the powerful invoked what she called the doctrine of unripe time: “They say, ‘You can have change, but not yet.’”
Inez changed the face of Irish trade unionism when she persuaded thousands of low-paid women workers to join unions that had previously ignored them. In her interview she recalled doctors stepping over cleaners as if they were not there. She hated to see people humiliated.
Rosaleen Davidson said Inez’s legacy would be that “she gave a voice to working- class women”. These were from both unionist and nationalist communities. Her first march was in London against the Vietnam war. As an internationalist, and as a Northern Irish Protestant married to a Catholic, she was anti-sectarian.
One British secretary of state told Inez he had worked out that she was “loathed in high places and loved in low places”, which she took as a compliment, but in fact her friends included Hillary Clinton and Mary Robinson, who called her a “towering figure for women”.
Meryl Streep played her in New York in a drama about leading human rights campaigners. President Michael D Higgins sent her a book of his poetry and in an interview for the documentary said: “Inez does not belong to Ireland, she belongs to the world.”
Inez used her influential contacts with strategic ruthlessness. While we worked on the film, she texted me instructions such as: “Don’t make me into a saint. I want to continue to be effectively annoying when I am gone.”
Inez died on January 21st last year.
President Michael D Higgins and his wife, Sabena, will attend a showing of Inez – a Challenging Woman, directed by Trevor Birney and Eimhear O'Neill, and produced and narrated by Susan McKay, at 4pm today at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin. The documentary will be shown on BBC Northern Ireland on January 21st next, the second anniversary of Inez McCormack's death. It was premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh this summer and was joint winner of the best short documentary award.