Inez McCormack, Trade Unionist and Human Rights Activist, Born Derry 1946, Died 21st January Derry 2013

Inez McCormackInez McCormack was the first woman president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions from 2000 to 2002, Born into a Protestant working class family in Derry, she left school aged 16 and studied social work at Queen’s University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin. As a student she took part in the early Civil Rights demonstrations and was at Burntollet when they were attacked by B Specials and Loyalists. It was there she met her future husband, Vinney, a catholic from Belfast – on the barricade so to speak.

As the first female trade union official for the National Union of Public Employees she championed low paid workers not only by leading negotiations but in her strategy of getting them to publically campaign. Facilitating the outsiders and the marginalised to claim their legitimise space was the hall mark of her life’s work. In those days in the North, even in the trade union movement, it was not an easy job to push feminism, equal rights and promote the cause of low paid unskilled workers. Inez had tenacity and became the regional secretary of Unison and later was elected the first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

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 played an important behind the scenes in the run up to the Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998.

She was a founder member of the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Fair Employment Commission in Northern Ireland in 1976. Most recently, in 2006 she founded the Belfast-based Participation and Practice of Rights in 2010.

Her career was featured in a documentary play on Broadway, Seven, when seven award-winning playwrights were commissioned to tell the personal stories of women who had worked for change in countries around the world. She was portrayed in an ensemble reading of the play in New York by Meryl Streep.

In 2011 Newsweek magazine named her as one of “150 women who shake the world,” the only one to come from Northern Ireland. Her international Human Rights work was done in conjunction with her friend and colleague Mary Robinson. Tributes were paid to her by ICTU, The National Women’s Council and President Michael D Higgins.

The best tribute we can pay to Inez is to try and renew the trade union movement with her vision, depth of commitment and campaigning spirit.