Trade Unionist / Human Rights Activist / Feminist
Inez McCormack (nee Murphy) was born on 28 September 1943 into a Protestant loyalist family in county Down. Of her somewhat sheltered childhood, she commented:
‘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.’
McCormack attended Magee College in Derry from 1964-66 and then Trinity College, Dublin from 1966-68. She met her future husband, Vincent ‘Vinny’ McCormack, a Catholic Derry man, in London shortly after her graduation in 1968 and the two married shortly after. The pair very quickly became involved in the civil rights movement in the North and took part in the People’s Democracy march from Belfast to Derry in 1969 which was attacked by loyalists. After training for three years, McCormack took up employment as a social worker in Ballymurphy in 1972, an incredibly deprived area at the time due, in part, to the Troubles. She worked here ‘amid gunfights and extreme deprivation’ and when an attempt was made to close down the office, she and her co-workers refused to leave because they knew how much their services were needed there. She contacted the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) and subsequently became the shop steward. They won their case and McCormack shortly after began working part-time for the union in 1974.
Just two years later, in 1976, McCormack became the first full-time female official of NUPE and was given ‘the unprecedented task of recruiting 1,000 members within her first five months of employment.’ McCormack almost immediately identified that part-time women workers were usually not unionised as they were seen to be too hard to organise. She set out to change this and was very successful. She went on to represent Bronagh Hinds, who is also featured as one of our Northern Ireland Heroines, in her case of unfair dismissal against the NI Consumer Council in 1980. McCormack’s career within the trade union movement continued, and she became the first woman to chair the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) in 1984, and from 1999-2001 she served as the first female president of ICTU. Her dedication to childcare issues saw her ridiculed within the highly male dominated sphere of trade union circles and she was ‘booed from the platform’ on at least one occasion.
‘I hope the election of one woman to an executive of 20 is not taken as an argument to say women have arrived. My job will be to ensure my election is used for the benefit of the majority of women in Ireland, North and South, who have had to face obstacles in trying to gain their basic rights. I will go on to the executive and do a job of work, but I do not want to be used as a token woman. I managed to get elected in spite of the attitude of the existing executive council in cancelling a creche already arranged for this conference.’
As far back as 1980, McCormack was pressing for a reform in the laws surrounding abortion and homosexuality and called for Northern Irish laws to be brought into line with the rest of Britain regarding such matters. Her determination regarding women’s equality spanned the length of her career, and she often spoke out on the disappointing lack of female politicians despite a female prime minister, the underrepresentation of women and particularly, the disregard shown for the importance of childcare for working families.
‘Women don’t need to prove their ability, what they need is access and confidence – and division of labour behind the front door.’
McCormack, along with others, argued for ‘strong, inclusive equality and human rights provisions’ to be contained within in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. She was also a signatory of the MacBride Principles which is a ‘corporate code of conduct’ for US states doing business with Northern Ireland. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of these codes for Northern Ireland was that it ‘harnessed the power of US investment against the practice of religious discrimination in employment.’
McCormack continued to campaign for the implementation of the provisions set out in the Good Friday Agreement, with a specific focus on the communities who had been most traumatised by the conflict and which were still some of the most ‘socially deprived and unequal’ in Northern Ireland. In the early 2000s she was a founding member of the Washington-based Vital Voices Global Partnership which tries to equip emerging women leaders from around the world with the tools and knowledge necessary to harness their potential to bring about peace and prosperity in their communities. In 2006 she founded Participations and Practice of Rights (PPR), a human rights organisation that supports marginalised groups, and still runs today. Some of their successes include:
‘the establishment of a new appointment system for mental health patients attending A&E across Northern Ireland, re-housing families from run-down tower blocks, and re-negotiation of regeneration plans from which residents have been excluded.’
McCormack won numerous awards for her years of dedicated work including 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. In 2002 she was described as ‘probably the best known and most experienced human rights campaigner in this country.’ Her career was featured in a 2010 documentary play titled Seven, in which she was portrayed by Meryl Streep, who thought very highly of McCormack, saying, ‘I’m an actress and she is the real deal.’ An additional documentary, Inez McCormack: A Challenging Woman, was produced and narrated by Susan McKay (another woman who is featured in our Northern Ireland Heroines project). It won best short documentary at the Galway Film Fleadh in 2014.
After a decade long battle with cancer, Inez McCormack died on 21 January 2013, and is survived by her husband and daughter. Among those who paid tribute to her were Michael D Higgins, former President Mary Robinson, and Hillary Clinton. Of her 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.’
Shortly before her death, when asked why she did the work that she did, McCormack replied that ‘at the heart of everything, I desire to see the glint in a woman’s eye who thought she was nobody, when she realised she was somebody.’
Herstory invites students and artists to create brand new portraits of Northern Ireland’s peace heroines. To have your art featured in the Herstory 2020 project please send your name, age and high resolution jpegs to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dowd, Ruth (14 April 2011), ‘The Woman Who Shakes The World,’ County Down Spectator, Bangor.
‘Inez McCormack: A Life,’ online at pprproject.org, https://www.pprproject.org/inez-mccormack-life [accessed 12 July 2019].
Belfast Telegraph, 17 Apr. 1980.
Belfast Telegraph, 4 July 1980.
Belfast Telegraph, 10 Jan. 1981.
The Guardian, 1 Feb. 2013.
The Independent, 23 Jan. 2013.
Sunday Tribune, 15 Sept. 2002.