THE LIFE OF INEZ

Inez McCormack celebration

Inez McCormack celebration

This was a special afternoon in South Belfast. The President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins along with one of his predecessors Mary Robinson joined trade unionists, community and human rights activists to say thanks for the life of a good friend. Few people could have imagined such a gathering anywhere in Northern Ireland 25 years ago or more during the troubles.

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

Some of Mary Robinson’s visits to Belfast in the past were very controversial, especially the one in 1993 when she shook hands with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. The person who worked behind the scenes to organise the meeting was Inez McCormack, who died in January aged 69. It was a mark of the woman and her achievements over 69 years of life that such a group assembled at the Elmwood Hall.

In 2006 Inez had founded “Participation and the Practice of Rights”, a group to put human rights at the service of the most disadvantaged members of society. So it was PPR who organised this celebration of the life and work of Inez, reflecting the various stages of her work from the days of her involvement in the civil rights campaign, her trade union activity in particular her concern for the low-paid and in latter years, her dedicated work as a human rights activist.

The theme of the two and a half hour event was “Out of the Ballrooms: peace, participation and equality”. Compered skilfully by the writer Susan McKay, it opened with the launch of the Inez McCormack Fund, set up to support the continuation of her work and to build on her unique legacy.

Vinny McCormack

Vinny McCormack

Her husband Vinny McCormack from Derry said the number and variety of causes Inez gave herself to were remarkable. Irrespective of whether the issue involved an individual, a family or prorecting an institution like the NHS, she gave herself to it body and soul. She reached across all barriers in search of common ground, based upon equality and justice. Vinny’s note in the programme for the event singled out a number of characteristics of Inez:-

Friendship was her forte; laughter her default; generosity and loyalty were her nature; belief in the best of human nature the ground she stood on“.

President Higgins said he had thought about Inez when he and his wife Sabina had hosted a reception earlier this month at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark International Women’s Day. He told the guests on that occasion that Inez was a passionate and committed human rights activist who fought relentlessly for the creation of a fairer society for workers, for minorities and for women. In her pursuit of a better and more equal world she was never afraid to push against the boundaries of injustice and intolerance, he said.

At the Belfast commemoration he again paid tribute to her dedication and courage. He said: “Her ability to constantly question the status quo demonstrated not only the strength of mind which was such an integral part of Inez’ personality but also the emancipatory thinking that marks out the true progressive; the person prepared to challenge false inevitabilities and question the taken for granted assumptions of the world we inhabit and the future we wish to craft together.” He added: “It takes great courage and moral strength to stand up to the perceived norms within society and to question the bureaucratic controls that can so often stifle progress. It takes enormous determination and persistence to constantly challenge the rigid mindsets that obstruct creative thinking and to refuse to give in to the easier alternative of remaining silent.”

Vinny McCormack, President Higgins & Sabina Higgins

Vinny McCormack, President Higgins & Sabina Higgins

 Mary Robinson who said she wore a red jacket in memory of Inez described her as a remarkable and an extraordinary organiser. “Inez was many things to many people, and to me her defining characteristic was her innate sense and belief in the dignity and value of every human being,” she said. “She always challenged what was wrong and worked to secure the rights of people; on many occasions this was without any public recognition as Inez was a very private person.”

The guests were shown a short video by the group “Right to work: right to welfare” which has been holding workshops on the jobs and benefits issues in association with PPR and the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, where it will launch a report and an art exhibition based on the experiences of unemployed people at the DHSS office in Great Patrick Street on Monday (25th) at 12 noon.

Barra McGrory QC, DPP, reads a Yeats poem

Barra McGrory QC, DPP, reads a Yeats poem

INEZ MCCORMACK: TRADE UNIONIST

Inez McCormack: ICTU Picture

Inez McCormack: ICTU Picture

Sad news this evening (Monday) about the death at the Foyle hospice in Derry of the leading trade unionist and human rights activist Inez McCormack, aged 69. As a trade union lay representative in the NUJ I met her on a number of occasions. The most memorable event I connect her with is when through her work behind the scenes President Mary Robinson came to a community function on the Whiterock Road in West Belfast in June 1993 and shook hands with the Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. The gesture was made away from the glare of the media. It was one of the moments recalled by Mary Robinson in her autobiography published last year. The significance of the event was that at the time Sinn Féin were still out in the cold, subject to censorship, and the IRA ceasefire would not happen until the following year.

Inez McCormack with Patricia McKeown, Alan McBride & Geraldine Finucane

Inez McCormack with Patricia McKeown, Alan McBride & Geraldine Finucane

The last time I saw Inez was at a fringe meeting in Derry in April last year during the ICTU (NIC) biennial conference. She was sharing a platform with Geraldine Finucane, Patricia McKeown her understudy and successor at UNISON and ICTU, and Alan McBride of WAVE. I wrote about it in a blog “Pat Finucane case and dealing with the past”. I recalled how as NI Secretary of UNISON Inez had helped to set up the handshake between Gerry Adams and President Robinson at Rupert Stanley College. I remembered that occasion as one when the media were kept firmly outside the door in order to ensure that no pictures of the handshake were taken. Yet it was a defining moment in the lead-up to the IRA ceasefire the following year. Here is one account of the occasion from the Independent.

In 1999 Inez McCormack became the first female President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions since its formation in 1959. She held the post for two years. She was the first woman full-time official of the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) from 1976-90. She became the first female regional secretary of UNISON in 1993. Inez was the first woman to be elected to the Northern Ireland Committee of Congress in 1980 and four years later became the first woman to succeed to the post of Chair.

During US President Bill Clinton’s first visit to Ireland, the First Lady Hilary Clinton paid tribute to her work and ever since then they remained friends. Mrs Clinton also mentioned Inez when she was in Belfast last month.

Inez stands out amongst the extraordinary people I have worked with over the last 17 years. She inspired and motivated me, challenged me often. One of Inez’s comments will always remain with me: there are so many more ties that bind us than divide us”,  she said.

A BBC Northern Ireland report recalls how in 2011, Ms McCormack, along with Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Meryl Streep and Mu Sochua (a Nobel Peace Prize nominee from Cambodia), was named by US publication Newsweek as one of ‘150 Women Who Shake the World’. Her lifetime work enabling women to improve their lives by spreading the values of human rights was immortalised when the Holywood legend Meryl Streep played her in a Broadway play. At the time Ms McCormack said: “It is very humbling to have your life story represented in this way and a privilege to have an Oscar-winning actress and strong female character like Meryl Streep involved in the dramatisation. I have had the privilege of spending a lifetime at the service of warm strong women, who challenged injustice not just for themselves but for the people and communities they cared for and whose only affirmation has been that of their own conscience.”

Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and UN Human Rights commissioner:

“Inez was a remarkable woman with a remarkable capacity for friendship. It was from Inez I learned that you can achieve much more if you don’t need the credit. Her support to me as a close advisor when I served as President was invaluable, but she never appeared in photographs or in the front row.”

Mrs Robinson has also written an obituary, which appeared in The Guardian.

Mark Durkan, former SDLP leader:

“Inez McCormack was impressive and effective in all she did. She stood for workers’ rights, for women’s rights, for equality and public services. As an organiser and as an advocate she championed the right of those serving others for lower pay than they deserved. She was articulate, compassionate and steadfast.  She was immensely charming as well as being intense in her convictions.  Her contribution to public life went beyond her primary role as a worker’s defender as she helped to benchmark the values, principles and protections that were needed for a fair and stable society. Her positive outlook, compelling analysis and valid stances won international recognition as a standard bearer for social justice and a role model for all who seek economic emancipation.”

ICTU President Eugene McGlone:

“Her track record in women’s and human  rights was unequalled. Her work in promoting the cause of labour and social justice in Northern  Ireland was known world-wide. Inez’s commitment to social justice began in the ’60s when she became active  in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement. She followed this on when she became a trade union and equality activist  before becoming the full-time official of the National Union of Public  Employees.  She also held the post when NUPE was reconstituted in a merger as Unison. Her unstinting passion was recognised and she received many justifiable  accolades. Her work included campaigning to organise and revalue the work and contribution of the ‘forgotten’ workers, most of whom were women. Inez also led major campaigns for strong equality laws and to assert the rights of the most disadvantaged. In 1998, she led a successful campaign for such inclusive equality and human rights provisions to be included in the Good Friday Agreement.”

Patricia McKeown, regional secretary of UNISON:

“The sad day thousands  of workers and trade union members have been dreading has come and Inez  McCormack, has left us – but only in the flesh. Inez will never leave us in  spirit. She has touched the lives of thousands of ordinary women and men and she has succeeded in what she set out to do. She has made a difference.”

Inez McCormack recalled in the Belfast Telegraph five years ago how her participation in the famous civil rights march at Burntollet in County Derry, in which she accompanied her boyfriend and later husband Vincent, would be an inspiration to campaign for justice. Truly one of the remarkable mná na hÉireann. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam dílis. Rest in peace.

Funeral arrangements: Inez will be buried at the City Cemetery, Derry tomorrow afternoon (Wednesday 23rd January). Her remains will be removed at 2pm from her brother-in-law’s house at 18 Belmont Crescent, Culmore Road (not far from the Foyle Bridge). The death notice says family flowers only and house private.

Memorial Service: The Londonderry Sentinel reports that a celebration for the life of Inez will be held on Saturday 23rd March at the Elmwood Hall in the University Road area of South Belfast from 2pm to 4pm. The ‘Out of the Ballrooms; Peace, Participation and Equality’ event is being organised by Participation and the Practice of Rights organisation (PPR), which Inez founded in 2006.  Seats are available by registration at www.pprproject.org.