INEZ McCORMACK: An appreciation from Patricia McKeown, Regional Secretary, UNISON

22 Jan 2013

Inez53

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.
Much has been said and written about Inez over the years. She is held in the highest regard across the International Trade Union movement. She holds a special place in the heart of the US Trade Union movement where her work not only on our own peace process but also against repression of workers everywhere has been acknowledged at the highest level. Inez constantly battled on shifting sands on some of the most controversial issues such as discrimination, child sexual abuse, rape in marriage and as a weapon of war and a woman's right to choose. Her vindication lies in the fact that many of the issues on which she broke the mould are now seen as safe ground for those who came later.
In the union we have always known her true worth. It lies not solely in her remarkable journey, engaging with power systems dominated by disrespect for women in general and the working class in particular. It lies especially in her unselfish and unshakeable belief that ordinary people, given a chance, can change the world.
Ironically it was a Tory Secretary of State who once told her "I have worked out that you are loved in low places and loathed in high places". She took that as affirmation that she was doing the right thing. So did we.
Inez enters the history books with many 'Firsts' to her name. The first woman union official to be appointed by the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE). The first woman to become Chair of Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU. The first woman to become President of the modern day Congress. The first contemporary woman trade unionist to be portrayed on stage by 'A' list stars such as Meryl Streep and Catherine Deneuve.
We have basked in the reflected glory of her extraordinary achievements. For Inez, all these accolades were merely tools to progress an agenda built on her feminist beliefs and her abiding desire to see equality, justice and the affirmation of human rights as a normal way of life rather than the continual struggle against selfishness, prejudice, intolerance and exploitation which it still is today.
Behind those election results, awards and tributes lies the story of a woman who broke the mould and never give up. A woman who having broken down so many barriers made sure that she constantly opened the way for other women to come behind her so that their struggle might be lessened. She instilled that philosophy in those of us she leaves behind.
Inez's first love was her family. Her second was her union members and their families. The stories of the tactics she employed in pursuit of their rights are legend. We recall a few:
- Direct action on the streets of Northern Ireland from the Winter of Discontent to the end of the Thatcher era in support of decent work and decent public services
- Street theatre celebrating the value of home helps, hospital cleaners and school meals workers
- An extraordinary campaign called "Fill a Bag and Feed a Family' to enable communities here which were themselves living in poverty to support the 1984 Miners Strike
- A 20 year campaign against privatisation, with strike action, constant political lobbying and relentless negotiation
- The development of ground breaking partnerships in health and social care in Northern Ireland across the whole Island and with our partners in New York
- The design and delivery of an award winning job creation scheme in the health service which brought real jobs to West Belfast and the Shankill
- Direct engagement with Irish Travellers, the residents of Divis Flats, politically vetted communities on both sides of the divide and the first real Trade Union Partnerships to combat racism
- The creation during her Presidency of ICTU of the extraordinary Human Rights project, the Practice and Participation of Rights Project which she personally laid until her recent illness. This unique project brings the tools of human rights directly into our most disadvantaged and divided communities and enables ordinary people to both fight for the rights of their own communities and to work together to do it.

One of the most important aspects of Inez McCormack's leadership was her ability to convince our members to leave their party politics outside the door of the union throughout the conflict and in pursuit of peace yet on the day in 1998 when UNISON had to decide where it stood on the Good Friday Agreement she encouraged them, unionist and nationalist, republican, loyalist and other to place their political views on the table to debate the Agreement. Following a marathon discussion her members decided for a 'Yes' vote yet remarkably she also confirmed that it was legitimate to vote no and remain part of our family.
This is only a tiny sample of the achievements of this incredible woman. UNISON had the honour in March 2012 to celebrate a portrait of Inez by the artist Kenny McKendry by bringing together women and men who worked on her myriad campaign over a 40 year period. The members of UNISON are so very proud that we were able to affirm her achievements while she was alive. We mourn her and continue to affirm them.