By Vinny McCormack
In 1960 an awkward lanky seventeen-year-old called Inez Murphy left her home in Cultra County Down to work as a junior clerk in the Northern Ireland Civil Service. In spite of her name, she came from a Protestant background. It is a safe bet that her fellow clerks were also almost exclusively Protestant; and a certainty that all at that
lowly level were women.
She was touched by the generosity of her colleagues who encouraged her to continue her education, and went out of their way to secure her access to textbooks for her exams; but she was perplexed that this generosity lay side by side with a contempt and fear for their “disloyal” fellow citizens. Inez was to spend her adult life seeking the generosity in people, and willing it to swamp the bitterness.
At lunch times she would attend ballroom dance classes, until her frugal resources made the choice for her: it was eat or dance, and it was a close run thing.
A cousin of hers was the last RUC officer to die in the 1958-62 campaign of the IRA. She wondered as a teenager what had brought people to kill a lad who had joined the RUC to escape life on the family farm.
In later years, my wife Inez McCormack would laughingly say that she was “the worst civil servant in the world.” Yet her A-levels finally took her to Magee College in Derry in 1964, when the fateful decision to site the North’s second University in Coleraine was taken by the unionist administration. It was her first taste of street politics, and a lesson in the nature of exclusion and abuse of power.
Challenging these were to be themes of her public life.
As her partner, I was to see sides of Inez that were unknown to most others. The awkward teenager had turned into a tall, willowy adult. On Saturdays she would go to Biba Boutique in Chelsea, and in return for modeling she would come home in a Mary Quant dress.
“Every woman should be able to buy a well designed dress for a fiver, and go out on a Saturday and enjoy themselves,” she’d say.
She understood that for women, looking good was an important part of liberation. Cheap, glamorous clothes had to be part of the deal.
On our return to Northern Ireland in late 1968 we found a situation transformed by the burgeoning Civil Rights marches.
“We were living through a historical defining moment,” she wrote many years later.
“Change was in the air, and we were on the move… Change comes about from an assertion, and ownership of the process, by those who most need the change. I am large. I contain multitudes.”
“For many years Inez had a nightshirt that had large wings coming out at the shoulder blades. It said: “Spread your Wings and Fly.” Inez showed more than a generation of women workers to value themselves, and their essential contribution to the health and educational services. She showed them how to spread their wings and fly.”
I have always thought that line could have been written specifically for Inez. She was large in every sense; large in her vision of what was possible, or as she once said, what was “utterly doable now.” The number and variety of causes she gave herself to were remarkable. She recruited members of Irish Language group Glor na nGael into her union, only to find herself confronting the power of the British state, whose attempt to politically vet the organization’s staff was not only illegal but exposed the members to threats to their lives.
Against the odds, she won.
The campaign to demolish Divis Flats showed how Inez enabled poorly educated women to challenge the humiliation of inhuman housing conditions. In that campaign the residents invited Labour MP Peter Archer to meet them. The authorities advised him not to attend, as his safety could not be guaranteed. I recall thinking, as they made their way across the rubble-strewn courtyard to the meeting, that they would make a perfect target for a sniper.
Then there were the union struggles such as the Health Service Strike of 1982; or the role she played in Mary Robinson’s visit to West Belfast in 1993. By ending the isolation of republicans, this paved the way for Sinn Féin to engage in serious talks both internally and externally; and her work in shaping the economic and social elements of the Good Friday Agreement. I recall also her acceptance of the invitation by Irish-American trade unionists to become a signatory of the Sean MacBride Principles of Fair Employment. She accepted only after great thought, and discussion with me. I advised her to accept, as she had exhausted all internal remedies for change. She gave herself to the campaign with her usual selflessness.
What began as a lonely campaign, with Inez vilified at home, but galvanizing Irish-American opinion, ended with President Clinton signing the principles into U.S. law in 1998.
As with all of her struggles, what began as strategic alliances ended by forming deep and abiding friendships, like her friendship with the late Terry Enright, environmental and human rights activist.
The campaigns I have talked about only scratch the surface of her contribution. What they shared was a belief in the innate generosity of people, driven by justice, decency, equality. On our final holiday together she pinned a note to a wishing tree. It said “Love and laughter to my grandchildren.” Her last role, and her greatest and
most cherished: grandmother to Maisie and Jamie.
Once in the mid-seventies we were driving through North Belfast in a dark grim foggy evening. The weather chiming with the bitter times. She asked me to stop the car and disappeared in the direction of a dim light. She came back with a bag of shopping. I asked her what she had got. She said: “Bread, milk and sugar.” I replied we had got them all at home. She said. “I just wanted to give the shop some trade. They looked as if they could be doing with it.”
She felt that she was most effective when operating from behind the scenes. Sometimes she did so in order to protect individuals and groups who might have been at risk had their work with Inez been known. Of threats to her own health and security she was oblivious.
I believe that her remarkable record was only beginning to be recognized recently.
Inez had no religious beliefs; but she was brought up in the Church of Ireland, and she took seriously the Protestant values of individual conscience and personal responsibility. In recent years she addressed quite a number of middle class groups, mainly or exclusively Protestant, and gently reminded them of their responsibility to behave in ways that recognized the dignity of all.
How are we to sum up the many remarkable aspects of such a remarkable woman?
I said that Inez had no religious beliefs. Of course, we share a common religious legacy such as belief in Guardian Angels. In many ways, Inez functioned as a Guardian Angel to many individuals and groups. Her broad back was ready to absorb the blows meant for them.
For many years Inez had a nightshirt that had large wings coming out at the shoulder blades. It said: “Spread your Wings and Fly.” Inez showed more than a generation of women workers to value themselves, and their essential contribution to the health and educational services. She showed them how to spread their wings and fly.
Once I drove Inez to a union meeting for low paid public service employees. After the meeting Inez was energized as if electricity were flowing through her.
“That’s something I love about this job,” she said – “organizing poorly paid women.”
Inez got involved with the trade union movement when she was suspended from her social worker job in West Belfast in 1972 for daring to challenge the way desperately poor people were treated. She had the good fortune to fall in with two male English trade unionists, John Coulthard and Alan Fisher of the National Union of Public Employees. Alan was the head of the union.
He once memorably said: “Inez always tells me what she is doing. I am glad to say she always waits until she has done it.”
Alan did not hesitate to demand her release on a number of occasions when she was arrested by the British Army while on union business. At Inez’s funeral, local writer Nell McCafferty told me a story about Inez’s trade union approach.
She would get Catholic and Protestant women to talk about sex and marriage. Amid ribald laughter, they would soon figure out how much they had in common. Soon laughter would give way to serious consideration of shared experiences of pain, poverty and ill health, and a determination to defend public services with access free to all.
Inez has often been referred to as a “human rights activist” or “equality campaigner” or “trade union leader.” These were true, but she expanded these roles, finding new and original ways to explore the relationship between rights, equality and justice.
All of these flowered in her work over the last five years of her life in the Participation and Practice of Rights organization. She was so proud of the young and talented team engaged in the project. They engaged with those who had been affected by housing and health issues to effectively speak for themselves and present their cases in public forums.
Inez was an essentially private person. Of course, she was flattered when Meryl Streep played her on stage in Broadway – and she milked the publicity for all it was worth in her pursuit of equality and participation.
Inez died in her seventieth year. In those years she showed us how to live. And in her last illness, with the help of staff at the Foyle Hospice in her adopted home of Derry, she showed us how to die.