I’m already settled with my teapot and mug in the Cultúrlann when Inez McCormack joins me. She’s on her way to give a talk to the young people in St Mary’s University College across the road, but she pulls back her chair and pours a cuppa like a woman with time and attention only for me.
That name – Inez – where’d it come from? Well, her great-great-grandmother was Spanish and she met her great-great-grandfather, a sailor, and the name filtered down. “Though how in the whole of Spain do you meet a Protestant in Barcelona?” She laughs with delight at the thought. Her name should be pronounced “EE-nez”, but she’s given up on that long ago. In Belfast you’re lucky they don’t call you Agnes.
She joined the Civil Service after leaving school early: “The school I’d gone to in Bangor was about teaching an accent, not about teaching you to think”. At the Civil Service interview they asked how she’d react to her brother marrying a black woman and how she viewed homosexuality. “In a sense you were being asked the disguised question, which was about Catholics”.
But she got the job, working alongside older women – “lovely women” – who covered for her while she went up and studied for O and A Levels in the Stormont library. And yet those same “lovely women” would talk openly of how “they can’t be trusted”. “I wasn’t that bright at the time but I worked out there couldn’t be Catholics in the room”. It was an early and important lesson. “If you see people as a lesser being, because of who they are or where they come from, then it becomes permissible to treat them as lesser beings”.
From there she went to London and found herself involved in the famous Grosvenor Square demonstrations in 1968, and was arrested. “I didn’t run – I’d relatives in the police and I didn’t know you ran when the police were coming for you. I learnt”. But she couldn’t ask questions about what was going on in the rest of the world and not ask questions about what was going on at home. She married a Derryman and became involved in the civil rights movement of the late 1960s.
“My father-in-law, a quiet, devout Catholic, had been wounded in the war three times. When the Bogside got raided that first night after the civil rights march, and there was a march the following day of all the people, I saw him do something I’ve never forgotten. He put on his good suit. That was his way of asserting that neither he nor his family were lesser beings. That taught me that humiliation is the absence of right”. When she went home with her scars showing from being beaten up at the march, her family told her if she hadn’t been there, nothing would have happened: “Instead of accepting responsibility that there was something wrong”.
She became “a very bad social worker”, working in places like Ballymurphy, where she was supposed to do counseling. “I just wrote vouchers instead. The budget for the place shot up”. She saw women being treated by the public bodies “as less than animals, if they were looking for something for their kids or for something to do with their housing”. She remembers making the case for a woman who had several children and was down to her last few pence. The official response she got was “She could withdraw her conjugal rights, couldn’t she?”.
Shortly after she joined a trade union with 250 officials; she was the only woman. Working on behalf of women in lowly-paid jobs, she soon discovered that the reason for the low pay was, these women were not “at the table” – their voices were not heard. “And that’s as true now as it was then”.
The promises of the Good Friday Agreement are about dignity, respect and right. “Yet I look in areas of North Belfast and west Belfast at the absolute lack of opportunity for the last ten or twelve years, for young people in particular. In North Belfast, there’s a huge refusal to provide social housing and the gerrymandering of figures to redefine the housing lists. Some 90 per cent of those on the housing waiting lists in North Belfast are Catholic. There’s a refusal to build houses on the grounds that you have to get agreement between loyalist politicians and republican politicians. I have a simple answer to that: if you had to wait for agreement on housing in the civil rights movement, we would never have got it”. And if building occurs on the basis of ‘good relations’ – 50 per cent for Catholics, 50 per cent for Protestants? “What you are doing is screwing the poor because of their religious background. I came into all this a long time ago to make sure that would never happen again”.
She welcomes the political accommodation that’s been reached, but the facts and figures show there’s a growing gap between the prosperous and the poor. “What I see growing is not the problem with the peace walls. I see a growing wall with, on one side, economic protections, and on the other side of the wall, the growing number of those excluded”. Protestants are among the excluded but “over 60 per cent of long-term unemployed males are Catholic”.
She believes institutional behaviour that produced exclusion in the first place has to be challenged. “The majority of investment which has come into Northern Ireland, both public and private, has not gone to north or west Belfast. That has to be challenged. Good relations are not good relations if they’re built on silencing the poor.”
“Look at the work I’m involved with in PPR [the Practice and Participation of Rights project, which supports disadvantaged groups to assert their right to participate in social and economic decisions which affect their lives]. You ask a public body like the Housing Executive ‘How are you gathering data about housing under the equality requirements of the Good Friday Agreement?’ and they come back and say ‘It’ll cost you £33,000 to get an answer to that’. It is deeply disturbing that that can be said with complacency, post-Good Friday Agreement.” What about the notion that we sort everything else out and then a trickle-down system looks after places like North and west Belfast? “Well I’m telling you, trickle down doesn’t happen. Sixty-one per cent child poverty in New Lodge, two per cent in Malone”.
“All those years ago with my father-in-law and his good suit – the Good Friday Agreement is supposed to be that good suit. A lot of my work is to enable people to speak and challenge for themselves, because those women who speak to power are treated like rubbish. An example. The women among the residents in the Seven Towers brought in some of the best experts in the world to find how could you proactively change the Seven Towers, how could you bring in better heating systems, how could you actually work with architects and planners, to change the spaces in North Belfast to build social housing. The answer was to dismiss the work of these two men – one of whom is used by Obama in terms of federal housing authorities, one of whom is used by the Health Organisation – the response was to dismiss them in a half-page”. Who dismissed them? “The Housing Executive and the Department of Social Development”.
She’s been asked to be a global ambassador for places like Haiti where the society has been shattered, she’s been awarded honorary degrees by universities, Meryl Streep is playing her life on a New York stage. But she looks at women in the New Lodge, women who’ve got water running down the walls of their flats, their children getting asthma : “You have to bring your victories to them”.
She’s more than glad to see an end to violence here. “But there’s another violence – the violence that happens when there’s an absence of right. Change is not happening for the most excluded. In fact the gap is widening. And I’m saying now, as a wake-up call: ask what it will take to change the expense in education, health, investment, to change conditions in these areas – and give a timetable for change.”
As to the coming of the University of Ulster to Belfast, it’ll be good if the massive procurement contracts are handled properly. “The university must say ‘Anybody looking to us for money for a contract, must employ people who are long-term unemployed of twelve months or more – the ILO [International Labour Organisation] definition. Now suddenly this has been redefined as three months or more. This means that people who are just out of the labour market will get the jobs; people who are most excluded will go again to the back of the queue.
“That will affect North Belfast – largely Catholic, but it’ll also affect the Lower Shankill.”
Some years back she worked, she says, with both communities, when Springvale was supposed to be coming to west Belfast – “and suddenly we find it over in the Titanic Quarter”.When I quote the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Ulster who says the transfer of the university to central Belfast will raise local educational aspirations, she’s pretty brisk, not to say cutting.
“What is needed is not talk about local people and their aspirations. What is needed is a systematic outreach that’ll allow them to fulfill their aspirations.”
The one change above all that she’d look for in our society?
“Accountability. I mean that in the Seven Towers, when they brought in the two international experts, who produced practical changes and brought proposals forward, and they were dismissed out of hand. There should be a requirement for public bodies to be accountable for that kind of behaviour.
“Mary Robinson said to me 30 or 40 years ago, when she took the first cases on social benefit in the Republic of Ireland, cases that went to Europe – she said to me ‘It’s about putting manners on them’. And in a sense that’s what the Good Friday Agreement is supposed to be about – manners. I fought all my life for non-violent means of social change. Non-violent doesn’t mean ineffective change. I want local politicians to grasp cases like those I’ve mentioned and say ‘We want change and we want an outcome and we want it now’”.
I pack my tape-recorder and leave as she bends over her notes for addressing the young people of St Mary’s in ten minutes’ time. If Inez McCormack, the woman with the Spanish great-great granny, doesn’t inspire them, nothing will.