Inez McCormack: Civil rights and human rights activist who fought discrimination in Ulster

 

Inez McCormack was a Belfast Protestant who left behind her family's unionist background to become a lifelong activist in the fields of civil rights, human rights, women's rights and fair employment. A rare bird in Northern Ireland terms, she rose to become a trade union leader in a highly male-dominated scene. Often the sole woman on boards and committees, she once remarked drily, "there is no fun in being the first woman on anything."

Although there were claims that she played a critical role in bringing peace, her most important contribution probably came much earlier when she was one of the sponsors of the MacBride Principles in the mid-1980s. This was an affirmative campaign which successfully harnessed the political and financial clout of the Irish-American lobby to pressure Westminster into toughening laws against religious discrimination.

She also spent a life immersed in issues such as equality, urban regeneration and representing low-paid workers. Her campaigning attracted praise from Hillary Clinton, who said of her: "Her efforts to promote human rights and social justice remain an inspiration to me."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, McCormack attracted less acclaim in her native Northern Ireland, where she stood out as an individual who did not fit easily into any of the familiar categories of activism. According to her fellow trade unionist Patricia McKeown, "She was internationally recognised – not always so recognised at home, but I think in recent years it has become very clear that we all owe a debt to a woman who broke the mould and never gave up."

Brought up in a sedate Protestant area of County Down, McCormack attended an all-girl grammar school where one teacher described her as "a good brain but flighty." She left at the age of 16 to work as a typist. A restless spirit, she was twice beaten up at protests, once at a Northern Ireland civil rights march and once at an anti-Vietnam war demonstration in London's Grosvenor Square.

Her interest in the civil rights movement was sparked by Vincent McCormack, who was first a boyfriend and later her husband, and who like her spent decades as an activist in fair employment and related issues.

She was radicalised by her experiences on the streets. She 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. It wasn't that Protestants didn't suffer deprivation, but there was systematic discrimination against Catholics."

Her parents opposed her marriage to Vincent: "Mixed marriages weren't exactly popular or acceptable and there was a lot of reaction," she recalled. "Over the years they came round, more or less, but they were never comfortable with it."

She worked in the civil service and as a social worker, studying at night classes and taking a degree in history and politics. She went on to make a career in the trade union movement, becoming the first female full-time official of the National Union of Public Employees and later the first female regional secretary of Unison. In this role she represented women who worked in hospitals and schools, many of them as low-paid cleaners, home helps and nursing auxiliaries.

She accused male trade unionists of subjecting her to harassment, bullying and humiliation. "At one meeting I was booed off the platform and called scum," she recounted. "I was talking about child care and was told that it shouldn't be on a trade union agenda." One commentator wrote: "Her gift for outspoken feminism, abrasive style and single-minded determination do not make her an easy team player." Despite such resentments, she rose to become the first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, from 1999 to 2001.

She also continued her activism in many areas, serving on innumerable committees and commissions concerned with human rights and fair employment. She was involved in the Vital Voices Global Partnership, a Washington-based international women's organisation which identifies, trains and connects emerging women leaders around the world.

In 2010 her career was featured in a documentary play, Seven, which the organisation commissioned from seven award-winning playwrights to tell the personal stories of women who had worked for change in countries such as Northern Ireland, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Cambodia.

She was portrayed in an ensemble reading of the play in New York by Meryl Streep, who said of that evening: "I was mortified when the real women came up onstage and I found myself standing next to the great Inez McCormack. I felt slight next to her, because I'm an actress and she is the real deal."

In 2011 Newsweek magazine named her as one of "150 women who shake the world," the only one to come from Northern Ireland. More than a decade ago she was diagnosed with cancer which was treated by major surgery to remove what she described as "a tumour as big as a man's fist from behind the heart."

Among those who have paid tribute to her were the Irish president Michael D Higgins, the former president, Mary Robinson, and Hillary Clinton. Clinton said: "She travelled the world encouraging young women to be agents of change in their communities and countries. We have come so far in part because of her insistence on a seat at the table for women and others who have been marginalised."

David McKittrick

Inez McCormack, trade unionist and human rights activist; born Belfast 1946; married Vincent McCormack (one daughter); died Derry 21 January 2013.

Voices
voices
News
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
newsBumping fists rather than shaking hands could reduce the spread of infectious diseases, it is claimed
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

year 5 teacher

£21000 - £32000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to wo...

Supply Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

Supply Teacher - Chelmsford

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We urgently require Primar...

Year 5 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to wo...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried