Inez McCormack obituary

Publié le par The Guardian - Mary Robinson

publiThe Guardianshed 01/02/2013 at 16:24 GMT by Mary Robinson

Human rights activist and trade unionist who became involved in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the 1960s

Inez McCormack
Inez McCormack, who has died aged 69 after suffering from cancer, was an internationally renowned human rights activist, trade unionist and feminist. The thread that ran through all her work was her innate belief in the dignity, worth and expertise of ordinary people. She will be remembered fondly for many things, not least for her gift of life-enhancing friendship, accompanied by her warm laughter and gravelly Northern Irish lilt.

Born Inez Murphy into a Protestant loyalist family in Co Down, she left school at 16 and worked as a clerk in a printing business. She attended Magee college in Derry in 1964-66, during the controversy over the siting of Northern Ireland's second university. Then, after leaving Trinity College Dublin, she embarked on a hitchhiking trip around the world, starting in London, where she met her future husband, Vincent McCormack, in a bar in the summer of 1968. He was from Derry, and taking part in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in London.

Inez became active in the Northern Ireland civil rights movement in the late 60s. With Vinny, she took part in a people's democracy march in 1969 from Belfast to Derry that was famously attacked by loyalists at Burntollet.

She first became involved in the trade union movement when she was suspended from her job as a social worker in west Belfast for challenging the way desperately poor people were being treated. She began campaigning to organise and revalue the work and contribution of "forgotten" workers, most of them women in low-paid jobs.

In 1976 she was appointed a union organiser with the National Union of Public Employees (now Unison), the first female Nupe official. Later, she was the first woman to chair the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (1984-85), and served as the first female ICTU president (1999‑2001).

Inez led campaigns to assert the rights of those who are most excluded. She led a broad coalition of groups who successfully argued for strong, inclusive equality and human rights provisions to be included in the Good Friday agreement of 1998. She was a signatory to the Seán MacBride principles for fair employment, which were based on the South African Sullivan principles, and harnessed the power of US investment against the practice of religious discrimination in employment.

Because of her pivotal role in the peace agreement, Inez subsequently campaigned for implementation of these rights as key to an understanding of conflict resolution based on the practice of justice. She continued to express concern that many of the communities most affected by the conflict continued to be the most socially deprived and unequal places in Northern Ireland. Inez's focus was always on the excluded – those who had not felt the benefit of any peace dividend in areas such as north and west Belfast. Inez always asked: "Who is not at the table?" She believed that challenging the status quo was vital to a healthy democratic practice.

When I was elected president of Ireland in 1990, Inez was an invaluable adviser in planning visits to Northern Ireland, including a controversial trip to west Belfast in June 1993. She also advised on and participated in a number of the visits by groups from Northern Ireland to my official residence in Dublin, Áras an Uachtaráin: women's groups, cross-community groups and youth groups. Inez was by my side on my subsequent visits to Northern Ireland as UN high commissioner for human rights.

It was then I learned of – and strongly supported – the innovative work she was carrying out through the organisation Participation and Practice of Rights. This groundbreaking work has been commended recently by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as representing best practice in making practical use locally of the international human rights system.

Experience taught Inez that change could not be delivered through well-intentioned promises for the future. Change required timetables, outcomes and a keen awareness of power relationships. As she said: "Those who 'have' can always argue that tomorrow is the right time for change. For the 'have-nots' today is not soon enough."

Inez helped to found and was an active member of the Vital Voices global advisory network, which gives support to women challenging gender-based violence and social and economic exclusion. The network has led important campaigns to outlaw and challenge the trafficking of women. She would describe with excitement their work in Vietnam, Cambodia or Bangladesh, and add some humorous incident to make it seem ordinary.

When the Irish government appointed her in 2010 as the independent chair of a consultative process to develop an Irish National Action Plan to meet government obligations under UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, she was able to draw on the experience she had gained chairing the annual meeting of the Irish Joint Consortium on Gender Based Violence (involving all the development and humanitarian NGOs, Irish Aid and the Irish Defence Forces).

Inez was essentially a private person. She was teased about Meryl Streep portraying her in a documentary theatre production in New York in 2010 entitled SEVEN, which told the personal stories of Inez and six other women who triumphed over enormous obstacles to create major change in their home countries. During this production, Inez was asked why she did her work. She replied: "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."

Typically, Inez used the profile she gained from SEVEN for the benefit of the women she served in the rundown Seven Towers high-rise complex in north Belfast: "After Meryl Streep played me, I did 15 interviews in one day. I got the Seven Towers campaign into 12 of them!"

Inez became a well-known broadcaster and writer, and some of her work was included in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (2002). In March 2011 she was named one of Newsweek's 150 Women Who Shake the World, alongside Michelle Obama, Streep and Mu Sochua, the Cambodian Nobel peace prize nominee.

In recent years, my meetings with Inez began with us both pulling out pictures of our grandchildren: Maisie and Jamie were a constant source of joy to her. She is survived by Vinny, their daughter, Anne, and Maisie and Jamie.

Inez McCormack, trade unionist and human rights activist, born 28 September 1943; died 21 January 2013

Publié dans Avis de décès

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