Inez McCormack at the Seven Towers Flats in the New Lodge area of North Belfast.

Mention Inez McCormack to many Northern Irish people of this generation and get blank faces.

But Inez McCormack was an incredible, lifelong fighter for justice.  Through her activism, she affected the lives of many for the better.

The news reports following her untimely passing from cancer describe her mostly as a ‘trade unionist.’ Yes, that is a worthy title for the first female President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the first female regional  secretary of the National Union of Public Employees (now UNISON Northern Ireland), but Inez McCormack was so much more than just one occupation.

Born in Belfast, her eyes were opened to injustice when she took part in the anti-Vietnam War rally at London’s Grosvenor Square in 1968. From there, she was involved in many struggles throughout her life. She returned to Northern Ireland and became involved in the emerging civil rights movement. In 1969, she witnessed policemen colluding with armed loyalists who attacked civil rights marchers at Burntollet Bridge. She said the march ‘changed her life’ as it made her realise the deep inequities in Northern Ireland she had not seen from her unionist background.

Throughout her time in the trade union movement, Inez urged members to leave their party politics at the door, helping to unite workplaces in common causes and fight sectarianism. This became crucial much later, when UNISON voted to campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement referendum.

Crucially, she was also a key behind-the-scenes player in designing many of the equality provisions in the Good Friday Agreement.  She helped negotiate the MacBride Principles, which ensured that US companies investing in Northern Ireland did their part to tackle religious discrimination. The organisations that she helped found – or was involved in – are numerous and both national and international. In her later years, in the post-Good Friday era, she continued to speak out against the lack of progress in community relations and fighting poverty by a largely inept political class.

So revered was she that she gained recognition for her work worldwide. Newsweek named her as one of the ‘150 women who shake the world.’ Among her admirers are Hilary Clinton and former Irish President Mary Robinson.

Meryl Streep portrayed Inez in ‘Seven,’ a play about seven extraordinary women from around the world.  She used the media coverage to insist that the real stars of the show were the forgotten and voiceless women she worked for. Sitting alongside Streep in an interview, asked what it was like to be portrayed by a famous actor, she described to Streep and the audience’s delight that before the play, she had been fighting a housing rights campaign alongside the people of the Seven Towers Flats in North Belfast. A press release about the campaign got two lines in a newspaper. “After Meryl Streep played me,” she grinned, “I did fifteen interviews in one day… and I got that housing campaign into twelve of them.”

Almost exactly a year ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Inez a couple of times while Vice President of Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union. QUBSU’s Equality Officer that year, the tenacious feminist Treasa Harkin, brought Inez McCormack to a new generation of students at an event celebrating women leaders. In a chat a few months before the event, she was appalled that women were still having to fight the same battles against sexism that she fought decades earlier, but encouraged by the resurgence of feminist activism in Belfast. For a whole hour, we got to talk campaigns and activism with a living legend.

At that meeting, and at the event itself, she spoke clearly in a way that so many do not. Every word seemed to be laced with insight. It is so rare that you meet someone whose every utterance seems to resonate. Every word was so carefully chosen, so appropriate, and yet the delivery was calm, steady. From her head poured statistics, well-reasoned arguments, thoughtful and passionate insights. It’s difficult to describe what I’m talking about – but thankfully there’s this short video of Inez talking about human rights and social development to bail me out.

She only briefly touched my life, but she left an impression on me, as I’m sure she has done to many others. Her last project, Participation & The Practice of Rights, empowers citizens and communities in Belfast, and continues the work she started.

UNISON’s obituary today says that a Conservative Secretary of State once told her, ‘I have worked out that you are loved in low places and loathed in high places.’ What better affirmation is there that you’re doing the right thing – and what better thing can we aspire to?

A lifetime spent agitating, advocating, fighting on behalf of the downtrodden. Truly a life well lived. An example to everyone.

The fact that many people are only discovering her today is explained neatly by Mary Robinson:

“It was from Inez I learned that you can achieve much more if you don’t need the credit. Her support to me as a close advisor when I served as President was invaluable, but she never appeared in photographs or in the front row.

With deepest sympathy to the family – and with gratitude for all that Inez did, and to a new generation who will discover her work.

“Those who have can always argue that tomorrow is the right time for change. But for the have-nots, today is not soon enough.” – Inez McCormack

A press release celebrating Inez McCormack’s life is available on her website.