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.

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + echSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
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

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone