INEZ: A Challenging Woman is a documentary that explores the life and legacy of the internationally renowned and hugely influential human rights and trade union activist Inez McCormack.
Evan Short talked to Susan McKay, who interviewed Inez for the film, and discussed the documentary with Nicola Browne, from Participation and the Practice of Rights – a campaigning group set up by Inez.
Inez McCormack, who passed away in January last year from cancer, was a noted activist whose work on the social housing crisis in North Belfast made her a familiar face on the streets. But it was in the trade union movement where she first made her name while her work during the peace process brought her further into the public eye and saw her build relationships with two Irish Presidents and Hilary Clinton.
The former US Secretary of State is one of those to feature in the documentary, alongside President Michael D Higgins and former President Mary Robinson who speak of the impact Inez had on them through her campaigning.
Journalist and writer Susan McKay, who was a close friend of Inez, conducted the interview. She explained how Inez was keen to have her last words recorded. “I contacted her in 2012 about another issue and to my absolute shock she immediately emailed back and said she had just got this terrible diagnosis and prognosis.
“We were good friends so as soon as was possible we met up to talk about what could be done for her legacy because clearly she was a woman who had a lot of experience and life knowledge to pass on.
“When we spoke we agreed that the best thing would be to film an interview for a documentary. There just wasn’t the time to take a long term approach as she had been given four to six weeks to live, it needed to be something that could be done quickly.”
The title of the documentary – Inez: A Challenging Woman – is a deliberate play on words says Susan. “It’s called A Challenging Woman with the intention that the word ‘challenging’ would be understood because she wasn’t necessarily an easy person and she rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way. There are those who didn’t support her – she was a controversial person, but she was a force for good in my experience.”
Although it is a short documentary, Susan says it accurately reflects Inez’s support of people who did not normally have a voice. “She very much believed that people were very important in changing the world and that was the way she brought her feminism to her politics. A lot of trade unionists speak in terms of movements but Inez knew it began with the individual and therefore she was very supportive to a lot of trade union women. A lot of them we interviewed said she was instrumental in their careers because she believed in them and encouraged them.
“She was very, very preoccupied by poverty and very worried about the Good Friday Agreement and the fact the equality provisions in it hadn’t been fully realised. She felt very strongly that the places that had been the hot spots for the conflict were still the poorest parts of Northern Ireland. She was worried about that and she hoped that people would continue to work to advance those causes.”
Nicola Browne, from Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) – a campaigning group set up by Inez – said the documentary captures the impact she achieved on a global scale. “It’s quite a short documentary but I think because of the nature of the people who are in it speaking about Inez it will show the international reach she had as well as the impact she had in Northern Ireland on equality issues and the peace process. It captures the range of her work and how innovative is was.
“There is a very powerful contribution from Vinny McCormack, her husband, and very powerful people she met like Mary Robinson and Hilary Clinton speak with love about her. But she made sure to use any spotlight she got to do good for someone who ordinarily wouldn’t have got any attention.”
INEZ: A Challenging Woman screens at the Irish Film Institute on Thursday, 27th November at 4pm.
The screening will take place in the presence of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. It will be followed by a panel discussion with Michael Farrell, civil rights activist; Martin O’Brien, the Senior Vice President for Programmes at Atlantic Philanthropies; Trevor Birney, co-director; and Susan McKay, producer.