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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
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

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

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

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Ashdown Group: Junior Reports Developer / Application Support Engineer

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Recruitment Genius: Client Support Officer

£10 - £11 per hour: Recruitment Genius: The candidate must be committed, engag...

Day In a Page

In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible