It is perhaps a sad fact of life that it is only often in death that a person’s contribution to wider society is wholly evaluated and appreciated.
In the case of Inez McCormack, however, this was not the case. This was a woman who certainly made a tangible mark whilst she was here. Her passing in January past only served to bring her remarkable story sharply back into focus.
The trade union leader and human rights activist was the first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (1999-2001) representing UNISON, and also successfully campaigned for the inclusion of strong equality and human rights provisions in the Good Friday Agreement.
Married for over 40 years to local man Vincent McCormack, Inez lived the last decade of her life in Londonderry.
In 2010, Inez McCormack’s life was featured in the American documentary play ‘Seven’, developed by Vital Voices – her ‘part’ being portrayed by Meryl Streep. When the women portrayed in Seven were asked to come on stage and stand beside their on stage likenesses, Streep stated she “felt slight” whilst standing beside Inez and added: “I’m an actress, and she is the real deal.”
Amongst other accolades, in 2011, Inez was named as one of ‘150 women who shake the world’.
‘Seven’ is a docudrama that presents the lives of seven distinct women from around the globe. Seven playwrights undertook interviews with seven different women in different countries engaged in struggles to address their own oppression, to challenge those in power to accept responsibility and to affirm the capacity of women to take effective leadership. The pieces interwove the stories of the seven women, highlighting the great risks they took to make oppression visible and what happened when they challenged authority.
The work has since been translated into more than a dozen languages and has included performances in New York, Stockholm, London, Delhi, Tokyo, Afghanistan and Jordan.
However, it was to the Balkans that Vinny McCormack travelled very recently to see his wife’s life story, which he obviously more than anyone knows, portrayed onstage for the first time.
The performance took place in Zagreb, capital of Croatia, itself of course a site of major conflict in the 1990s.
Vinny said: “It was a snap decision to go to Zagreb and in the end, my only regret was that I didn’t go for a few days more. The astonishing thing was that Inez’s part was played by the former Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who bears a real resemblance to her.
“The stark set means people have to concentrate on the performance. The tour of the Balkans was funded by the Swedish government, and it was also performed in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia as well. The nature of the writing means there is a lot of scope in the way that it’s performed and in one instance seven members of the Swedish army performed it. And, when men read the parts, I think they realise that they are the oppressors.”
Vinny also said that, whilst it was somewhat difficult to guage the immediate reaction of the audience because he was seated at the front with everyone else behind him, what did strike him was that: “There wasn’t a single sound – not a cough, which in November in a theatre is highly unusual – and also that the audience was very mixed in terms of age and that the actors were very much engaged in the parts as well.”
The story of Inez McCormack is one which ran parallel to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Whilst inter-communal violence raged around her, she never detracted from trade union or human rights activities, something which in turn brought her into conflict with the warring factions – and this was before she also encountered the ire of the male race in the supposedly egalitarian world of left wing politics.
Addressing the audience in Zagreb, Vinny McCormack said: “Inez organised the poorest part-time women workers in Northern Ireland, during a war that lasted 38 years. She was held at gunpoint by British soldiers and her life threatened by sinister forces who feared equality. A British government official once said to her ‘You are loathed in high places and loved in low places’. She took that as a compliment! She organised women and men in Northern Ireland on the basis of their marginalisation, not their religion or politics.”
Inez was once quoted as saying: “I was a puzzled young Prod – until I was 17 I hadn’t knowingly met a Catholic. I was a young Protestant girl who didn’t understand there were grave issues of inequality, injustice and division in our society.”
Her subsequent studies at Magee College between 1964-66 and the controversial decision to locate Northern Ireland’s second university in Coleraine set her on the way, along with meeting Vinny – a founder member of the Derry Labour Party – to her future career in trade unionism and concentrating on human as well as civil rights. Ultimately, this led to her over-arching philosophy that only through inclusion and the combating of social marginalisation can something approaching a level playing field can be achieved.
So, for Vinny McCormack, how did this message translate into the Balkan states, places themselves emerging from conflict?
He said: “I think these are extremely positive things to be brought into these countries. The stories of these women are stories of conflict. Of how to confront oppression. Inez believed that nobody should ever reconcile themselves to poverty or exclusion. Our conflict in Northern Ireland seemed like a family feud compared to the Balkans.
“In Albania for example, Inez’s part was played by a male who had spent 17 years in jail for pointing out the flaws in the former regime.”
Yet, behind the universal messages on display in Zagreb were of course the personal feelings that must have come into play for Vinny. This was after all the life of a woman he had spent over 40 years with and had a family with as well. What did he think when he saw it?
“It was certainly strange. It was also certainly difficult because of the language differences and I did find it strange to see someone on stage playing Inez.
“The women’s stories indicate the universality of suffering – not that only women suffer, it just so happens these stories are about women.
“But, an indication that it was received very well was that people stayed about for hours afterwards talking about what they had just seen. I was absolutely astonished by that.
“Inez never expected that ‘Seven’ would find this kind of longevity and no doubt her portrayal by Meryl Streep helped that, but, it is strange that ‘Seven’ has never been performed in Ireland, north or south. It is crying out to be performed here,” he said.