I have known Inez McCormack for many years. She has been an activist since her days with the People’s Democracy and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s. She took part in the Peoples Democracy march from Belfast to Derry at the beginning of January 1969 which was ambushed by unionists at Burntollet. It was an experience which helped shape the young Inez into the committed activist for equality and justice we all came to know.
Inez described herself as a young Protestant girl who up to that point didn’t realise the depth of injustice and inequality in the north and the extent of structured discrimination confronting Catholics.
Growing consciousness of this injustice spurred Inez to embark on the long march for justice and equality, and in defence of the rights of citizens. Inez was still on that march when she died earlier this week. She remained steadfast and as committed and unswerving to her personal vision throughout those 50 years of activism as she was in 1969.
Inez was a hero – a champion of the oppressed and disadvantaged wherever they were to be found. She never gave up. She never wavered in her absolute belief in the right of women to equality; of workers to parity and fairness, and freedom from exploitation; and of communities to live free from sectarian harassment.
As a young social worker in west Belfast she was suspended from her job because she spoke out against the way in which disadvantaged people were being treated by the system.
It was that courage to take a stand that marked her out throughout her years of tireless campaigning – a willingness to step up, provide leadership and speak out against prejudice.
Inez was also an internationalist from her time marching against the Vietnam War to her opposition of apartheid in South Africa.
She was also a key player in advocating and winning support for the MacBride Principles campaign in the United States which sought to ensure that U.S. investment in the north bolstered fair employment. She was also a very significant lobbyist in the USA on the issue of jobs provision especially in the use of pension funds.
As a woman she broke new ground by rising to the top in her role as a trade union leader and the first woman President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. She was a founding member of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Fair Employment Agency and she helped establish the Equality Coalition.
In 1993 Inez played a pivotal role in persuading the then Irish President Mary Robinson to visit west Belfast. This was a moment of singular importance in breaking through the wall of exclusion that had been built around Sinn Féin and the people of west Belfast. The British policy was to marginalise and disenfranchise republicans and the community within which we lived and from which we drew our support. One British Secretary of State had described west Belfast as the ‘terrorist community’.
The British didn’t want Mary Robinson to visit west Belfast and the Irish government wasn’t much better. But she did and it was one of several key moments in those years which helped create the context for the peace process. Inez helped make it happen. She was the main conduit between the west Belfast community and the office of the President.
Equality was her watchword. It was also centre stage during the Good Friday negotiations in which Inez’s advice and support for anti-discrimination language, human rights and equality came to the fore. A measure of this can be gleaned from the fact that there is no mention of equality in the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973.
It is included 21 times in the Good Friday Agreement.
Post the Good Friday Agreement Inez worked energetically to make its commitment to equality a reality. Her life of activism is marked by the inspirational effect she had on low paid women workers. From her organising work with domestic and cleaning staff in the Royal in the 70’s and 80’s Inez continued to find practical ways to advance the cause of women workers.
One project she and her trade union colleague Patricia McKeown were central to was the Health Employers Initiative which was part of the West Belfast and Greater Shankill Task Force. It facilitated domestic workers in the Royal to train up for higher paid skilled work while creating job opportunities for others.
This time last year Inez chaired one of Sinn Féin’s Uniting Ireland conferences. Over a thousand people turned out at the Millennium Forum to listen to Martin McGuinness and Basil McCrea UUP MLA, and economist George Quigley. Inez chaired the event with her customary good humour and common sense.
Inez was a passionate and articulate campaigner. She had a deserved international reputation as a human rights activist and was widely respected. She believed in people and in their goodness and decency. She will be greatly missed.
But while Inez may be gone the legacy of her decades of hard work is all around us in the progress that has been made over recent years.
Whenever I met Inez in recent times she always spoke with great delight about her grandchildren. Her face would light up as she recounted tales of her latest visit to Scotland to visit them.
That is how I will remember Inez. Her wide enthusiastic, indomitable smile and her great joy with life and living. And her family.
On behalf of Sinn Féin I want to extend my sincerest condolences to her husband Vincent, her daughter Anne, son-in-law Mark and grandchildren Maisie and Jamie.