'None of us have the right to be who we were': a tribute to a peacebuilder

Among Northern Ireland’s peacemakers Inez McCormack was unusual: she was an architect of the parallel peace process, which sought equality as the prerequisite of peace and reconciliation

Part of 5050's series on women and peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

Inez McCormack speaking at Unison. All Rights Reserved.

On the English side of the Irish Sea, the icons of peace tend to be represented as the benign British government confronted by brawling paddies, and saintly, good people who begged the men of the guns to lay down their guns.  Inez McCormack, who died last year, was not one of them. She was not a household name in England.  But everyone knew her in Northern Ireland, where she was loved by both working class protestants and catholics, women and men. In Dublin and Washington, she was well known as a daring and ingenious change-maker. There were people in the British establishment who regarded her as dangerous – not because she was a black-beret, AK-47 wielding combatant – but because her mission was to transform a scornful, sectarian and sexist state into an egalitarian democracy.

McCormack foxed her enemies because she put change as the condition of peace, recognition of disadvantage and redress as the condition of reconciliation. That may sound modest, but it was seriously radical.  Avila Kilmurray, feminist activist and one of the founders of the Women’s Coalition, argues that the change agenda challenged the view of the conflict as ‘an aggravated crime wave’. Prof Christopher McCrudden, one of the architects of the equality agenda, insists that it was also a pre-condition of nationalists and republicans signing up to power sharing.

Whilst the equality agenda was attractive to those organisations closest to the combatants and to the women and men suffering inequality, the Northern Ireland Office and the Conservative government viscerally resisted making equality a ‘constitutional’ duty. McCormack was at the centre of an alliance between public sector workers, feminists, human rights activists and scholars that created a parallel peace process.  Their focus was radical reform as the condition of reconciliation. That infused the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace treaty, with an ‘internationally unique’ constitutional commitment to transform Westminster’s inegalitarianism in Northern Ireland into equality and multiculturalism.

Peace for McCormack was not merely the end of violence, but the transformation of the state and political culture – and the people, too. ‘None of us has the right to be who we were,’ she insisted.  The equality agenda, uniquely, challenged the sectarian and sexist structure of Northern Ireland Society. Of course, its success was always going to be contingent on the will to implement. In these neoliberal times, and what Prof John Morison calls the spread of privatised ‘fugitive states’, it provided a model for democratic accountability that reached beyond the state itself to outsourced goods and services procured by the state – a model for peacemaking then and good governance now. Crucially, the equality agenda enlisted the participation of the people themselves in policymaking processes.  

Corruption, MacBride and bringing in America

In the 1960s, the young Inez McCormack went to Biba in London for frocks. She went on marches. Back home she witnessed the extravagant brutality that met the civil rights movement when it campaigned for equal voting rights, housing and jobs. She witnessed the state’s readiness ‘to shed real blood’ in response to civil rights. Brought up amidst bigoted Protestantism, she encountered the ‘perplexing mixture of political radicalism and social conservatism of catholic culture.’ Her work as a peacemaker changed form – if not focus – in each of the following three decades up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that finally resolved the conflict.

In the 1970s she became a union organiser for the small National Union of Public Employees, driving up hill and down dale with her baby in the back of her car. She was later to become the leader of what, by then, became Unison, the biggest union in Northern Ireland and the only one to be growing during the bleak era of Thatcherism. It was as the union representative on Northern Ireland’s Equal Opportunities Commission that she confronted the institutionalised sectarianism of the very body supposed to be doing something about discrimination. She embarked on one of the great political partnerships during the conflict – after an administrative worker called Patricia McKeown turned up at her house with concrete evidence of the EOC’s corrupt sectarian bias. The scandal they exposed caused it to collapse. 

In the 1980s, in the aftermath of the 1981 hunger strikes by Republican prisoners, McCormack searched for ways past the impasse of a seemingly impregnable state and Margaret Thatcher’s intransigence.  This thing would not be resolved internally – Northern Ireland needed the vigilance of external pressure. There were 40 million Americans of Irish descent. In the early 1980s religious orders, black civil rights veterans, Irish American public servants and labour movement activists, reprised an earlier approach to apartheid in South Africa, refined it and directed towards Northern Ireland.

This agenda came to be known as the McBride Principles: not a boycott, but a strategy by pension funds and state legislators to make American employers and corporations involved in Northern Ireland deliver equality practises.  McCormack was one of the signatories to the McBride Principles. The implications were foretold in 1983 when the US government placed a contract with Short Brothers, the publicly owned Belfast plane-manufacturer: it employed 500 catholics and 10,000 protestants. The Irish National Caucus warned the US government about the ethics of its contract and faced the company with the loss of a massive order. Short Brothers instantly promised to introduce the affirmative action that it had, hitherto, resisted. 

Even today, only 16 per cent of the workforce is catholic at Short Brothers, sold off by the government in 1987 to Bombardier, although overall the proportion of catholics and women in the labour market has moved steadily closer to their proportions in the population.

Dozens of state legislatures, pension funds and corporations signed up to the McBride Principles, to the chagrin of the British government. Tory Northern Ireland minister Richard Needham admitted, ‘we spent a lot of time sending local catholic politicians and civil servants around American state legislatures counteracting the republican propaganda which was clamouring for the Principles to be adopted.’ It wasn’t Republican propaganda, of course, but the slur revealed what the government really thought about equality and the causes of the conflict. 

US corporations challenged the legality of the Principles – and lost. The British government, too, lost the argument. By the end of the decade new fair employment legislation was introduced, according to Needham, as a result of ‘the power that a combined Dublin-Washington alliance had over a British government.’

But towards the end of the 1980s, the government was mired in controversy about shoot-to-kill tactics; it was restraining the legal rights of its opponents. And at the very moment – in 1987 – when combatants on both sides began to canvass peace, the British security services covertly re-armed and re-invigorated loyalist militarism.  

Bill Clinton endorsed the McBride Principles in his 1992 election campaign, and thereafter Washington became a permanent player in the peace process.

McCormack with Hilary Clinton and Meryl Streep. All Rights Reserved

Equality, women and the Washington Three

In the 1990s an Equality Coalition was formed by Unison and the human rights organisation, the Committee on the Administration of Justice. They alighted on another international instrument to produce change: an unlovely European directive - the Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment directive, PAFT - that aimed to simultaneously address poverty, inequality and disempowerment by influencing policy-makers and enlisting the participating of the disadvantaged. The beauty of this was its utility for both Protestants and catholics, and for the poorest of all – women.

Historically, class politics had not been a unifying presence in Northern Ireland. After the decline of the mills, the great cathedrals of manufacturing, and their unions, had been largely closed to catholics and to women. Trade unions had been instrumental in the sectarian defeat of the first power-sharing agreement in 1974-5. But now, both communities could see equality and PAFT, as a class and gender resource. It was among the most disadvantaged, women, that this seemingly technical protocol became incendiary. They breathed fire into the equality agenda, and the Equality Coalition captivated two of the most charming politicians on the planet – Mary Robinson and Bill Clinton. 

McCormack ensured that for the first time an Irish President – Robinson – would come to the North. London resisted fiercely and finally announced that it could not ensure her safety. Then I will, pledged McCormack. It was a historic visit that, crucially, was designed to end the demonisaton of catholics in the north, and Clinton famously shook hands with the devil – Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams at the White House. 

It was during the early 1990s that McCormack engaged Dublin and Washington in the promotion of the equality agenda as a condition of a peace process, whilst London insisted on disarmament as a pre-condition of participation in peace talks – terms that came to be known as the Washington Three.  

Despite the ceasefires announced in 1994, London now demanded disarmament - a proxy for defeat of the republicans. Years were wasted. Only when Labour won the 1997 general election was the peace process re-invigorated. This time, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mo Mowlam, backed the equality agenda. It became one of the major themes of the Good Friday Agreement, supported by everyone and, crucially, by the parties closest to the combatants. It was signed on Good Friday 1998 and endorsed in referenda both sides of the border.   

That didn’t stop the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) trying to roll back and re-write the deal during the legislating process. That summer, McCormack, McCrudden and Martin O’Brien from the Committee on the Administration of Justice were locked in line-by-line textual combat with senior civil servants. Blithely disregarding the ‘settled will’, the NIO tried to disable the equality duties and re-instate their own agenda: prioritising reconciliation – which, of course, did not require redistribution or redress. That status quo was endorsed by some on the centre and centre left, notably members of Democratic Dialogue, who believed that naming interests and identities fixed sectarianism, and was, in any case, a Republican agenda. However, the status quo was defeated by a three-letter word: policymakers were to have ‘due’ regard to equality in all their work.  

In McCormack’s life-work, she sought to give voice to the unseen and unheard, the harmed and the humiliated.  Hers was a quest for alliances that could cross political frontiers – not by denying differences but by naming them, by denying difference as a source of domination. She pursued these aims by uniting equality with human rights and by reaching to internationalism beyond the sequestered cloisters of Westminster to force change.  If, on the English side of the Irish Sea, we don’t know about her, it is because the dominant narrative prevails – that the conflict was ‘an aggravated crime wave’ rather than the dirty business of a disreputable state.  That bad old habit is compounded by the toxic impact of neoliberal hegemony, which is inimical to the spirit of the Agreement, to the London government’s austerity; and Westminster’s indifference to the renewal of democracy yielded by devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – but not in England.

McCormack in the Unison offices. All Rights Reserved. 

Inez McCormack 1943-2013