By the time of her passing Inez McCormack had been portrayed on stage by globally renowned actress Meryl Streep and named by the highly influential magazine Newsweek as one of 150 women who ‘shook the world.’
Inez was a trade union leader and human rights activist that made an indelible mark in her sphere of influence and far beyond that as well.
The first woman president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU), Inez McCormack was at the forefront of the UNISON union and campaigned highly successfully for the inclusion of equality and human rights in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. She was also the founder of the human rights organisation Participation and the Practice of Rights-a group that supported disadvantaged groups which she continued to advise until her death.
Inez Murphy was born into the Protestant tradition in Cultra, County Down in September, 1943 and after her initial studies won a position as a junior clerk in the Northern Ireland Civil Service at 17-years-old whilst working towards her A levels at night.
At this tender age the budding champion of trade unionism didn’t fully appreciate what was actually happening in Northern Ireland and later recalled: “I was a puzzled young Prod. Until I was 17, I hadn’t knowingly met a Catholic. I was a young Protestant girl who didn’t understand that there were grave issues of inequality, injustice and division in our society.”
Inez McCormack’s first contact with Derry came in the years 1964-66 when she attended Magee College. It was the era when the decision to locate Northern Ireland’s second university at Coleraine. The experience provided her with her first taste of ‘street politics’ and an initial glimpse at how power was abused. Between 1966-68 she attended Trinity College in Dublin and it was there that she met Vincent McCormack.
The pair married within three months of meeting and as her husband was a founding member of the Derry Labour Party, when they returned to Derry Inez had a first-hand insight of the growing Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. She was on the People’s Democracy march that was attacked at Burntollet by loyalists as it approached Derry in January, 1969 and later described the era as “living through a historical defining moment.”
Later in 1969, having begun to study for a Diploma in Social Studies Inez McCormack began a career as a social worker in Ballymurphy, in 1972. The West Belfast housing estate, ravaged by the Troubles also suffered great levels of social deprivation and in the midst of that an attempt was made to shut the Social Services office down and the workers were to be moved to a different area.
Realising the need for them to stay the workers refused to leave Ballymurphy and they were advised to join a trade union to help them resist the pressure to go. Inez McCormack contacted the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and all the workers were accepted as member with Inez acting as shop steward. By 1974, she was working part-time for the union.
NUPE would eventually become UNISON and in 1976, Inez McCormack became the first female full-time official with the daunting task of achieving 1,000 members in the first five months of her employment.
Realising that part-time women workers in the public sector were normally dismissed as ‘too difficult to organise’ and so weren’t part of a union, Inez McCormack began the process of signing them up.
She said: “My whole mode of mobilising them was to make them see that their needs were real, that they were somebody."
By the time UNISON was formed in 1993 Inez had increased the union’s membership from 800 to 15,000. She went in to become the union’s first woman regional secretary and continued to represent low-paid women cleaners, home helps and nursing auxiliaries. Between 1984-1985 she was the first woman to chair the Northern Ireland committee of ICTU and became its first woman president in 1999.
Inez McCormack’s achievements were all the more remarkable coming as they did in a very male dominated world. But those achievements did not come lightly.
"At one meeting I was booed off the platform and called scum. I was talking about child care and was told that it shouldn't be on a trade union agenda.
“To those "inclined to take a stand against inequality or the abuse of human rights", McCormack asserted that "the fallout for the individual can sometimes be brutal, but it is emphatically worth it,” she said.
She was also a signatory to the MacBride Principles for fair employment, and succeeded in galvanising Irish-American opinion to combat the early unpopular reception to the Principles in Northern Ireland. The MacBride Principles were signed into US law in 1998, and brought the power of US investment against the practice of religious discrimination in employment in the North.
In the build-up to the 1998 Belfast Agreement saw the adopted Derry woman running a brilliant campaign to have equality and human rights provisions included. Inez McCormack viewed this as being key to conflict resolution founded on the practice of justice.
She saw that those most affected by violence in the North came from the most socially deprived communities. So, Inez McCormack’s campaign asserted the rights of the most socially excluded and she said: “Our job is to put the areas and people who are excluded at the centre of our economic and social planning and show that we can actually tackle the unjust and unstable conditions. I argue that a lot of the social problems come because the economy is built in a way that excludes people rather than includes.”
The next landmark in Inez McCormack’s long list of achievements came in 2006 when she set up participation and Practice of Rights (PPR). This is a Belfast group which supports marginalised groups in using a practical and unique human rights-based approach to tackle the social and economic challenges they experience. Successes include the establishment of a new appointment system for mental health patients attending emergency departments across Northern Ireland, re-housing families from run-down tower blocks, and renegotiation of regeneration plans from which residents have been excluded. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has described the work of the organisation as "ground breaking," saying, "They are not just challenging what is wrong, they are creating an inclusive sense of rights and dignity, they are engaged in pioneering work which will command much interest and application elsewhere.”
McCormack was a founding member of the Vital Voices Global Advisory Council, and honoured in 2002 at Vital Voices Global Leadership Awards in recognition of her contributions as a human rights advocate. The international organisation supports and invests in emerging women leaders in harnessing their potential to bring about peace and prosperity in their communities.
She was also appointed in 2010 by the Irish government as the independent chair of a consultative process to develop an Irish National Action Plan to meet government obligations under the UN Resolution on Women, Peace and Security.
McCormack received numerous awards, including an honorary doctorate from Queen's University Belfast in 2000 for her services to human rights and the community. She received the Eleanor Roosevelt Award from New York City in 1997, the Aisling Person of the Year Community Award in 2001, and the Irish Tatler Women of the Year Award in 2008.
McCormack was also a well-known writer and broadcaster, and her work has been featured in a number of television programmes and documentaries. Numerous articles by McCormack on the theme of underpinning building peace and prosperity by inclusive socio-economic strategies have been published in recent years, and some of her work was included in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (2002).
McCormack's career was featured in the 2010 American documentary play Seven. The play, developed by Vital Voices, spotlights seven women from across the world that have overcame obstacles to bring major changes in their home countries. Meryl Streep portrayed McCormack. When the women portrayed were asked to come on stage and stand beside their onstage likenesses, Streep stated that she "felt slight" while standing beside McCormack, adding, "I'm an actress and she is the real deal."
In 2011, Newsweek named McCormack as one of its "150 women who shake the world," the only Northern Irish woman to be named as such.
The documentary, Inez McCormack: A Challenging Woman, produced and narrated by Susan McKay, won best short documentary award at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2014.
Inez McCormack had lived in Derry since 2001. She passed away aged 69 in January 2013 at the Foyle Hospice having fought bravely against cancer. She is buried in Derry City Cemetery.
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