A Tribute to Inez McCormack

By Alyse Nelson

“When you accord the same understanding of human rights to those with whom you find you disagree, you have the right to classify yourself as a human rights activist. You have to trust your own courage, trust your own humanity, and trust your own capacity to be more than you are.”

On Monday, as we commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King, we said goodbye to another great leader for peace and human dignity. Our dear Inez McCormack died peacefully Monday, surrounded by her family at the Foyle Hospice near Derry, Northern Ireland.

Arguably one of the most influential civil rights leaders in Northern Ireland, Inez was instrumental in shaping the inclusive equality and human rights provisions in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that curtailed decades of sectarian violence. Her work contributed to a growing recognition that the ability to participate is integral to deepening democratic practice and to reconnecting economic growth and social progress at the global and the local levels. The first female president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, she campaigned for equality, dignity and justice for workers, minorities and women. 

Some say her lifelong commitment to women’s rights is what she will be most remembered for. Inez told me, “Leadership is not whether a woman can get power; it’s what she does with it.”

For all of us at Vital Voices, she will be remembered as one of our fearless founding mothers, a mentor and a friend. She left a footprint on the world, but also on our hearts.

Last month I traveled to Derry to visit Inez, carrying with me messages, photos and memories from many women leaders around the world who are part of the Vital Voices Global Leadership Network. She was weak and thin, but still fierce Inez. Doctors had given her just weeks to live. She turned weeks into months — and filled every day with people she loved and conversations now treasured by so many, including me.

Inez embodied Vital Voices’ vision and taught us the power of paying forward investments made in one woman by investing in others. She would often say, “Leadership means that when you take a step forward, you turn round and pull somebody else into that space.” Nearly a decade ago, Inez began mentoring Israeli and Palestinian women who were just beginning to forge partnerships for greater peace and stability. It was just one of many ways she enriched our programming and inspired many generations of emerging and established women leaders in our network.

Inez believed that in 100 years, when Northern Ireland’s history is written, women will be credited for playing a major role, not only in stopping the violence but also in shaping sustainable practices of peace building.

“I’ve won many victories, and it’s easy to claim the victory. The question is, does the victory translate into change for those who need it most? And that leads to the question: Who is not at the table? That is my driving force. It’s not a question about being just or being morally right. It’s asserting that this is the smart economics and smart democracy of tomorrow. There has to be an active process, a democratic process that creates opportunity for the most excluded.”


Learn more about Inez >> 

Read the Featured Voices profile.

Listen to the 2008 interview.

Watch the program film, the Peace and Prosperity Initiative.

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