Sad To See You Leaving 2013: Eddie McGrady & Inez McCormack

by Jackie_South on December 29, 2013

McGrady & McCormack2013 saw the death of two important figures in Northern Ireland, both born in County Down but in very different parts of that county.

***

Eddie McGrady was very much the political embodiment of the south of the county, a rural part of Northern Ireland that is majority Catholic but, unlike similarly Catholic areas in Armagh or Tyrone, never had an organised IRA brigade. Perhaps in part this is because whilst Armagh takes pride in the violent myths surrounding Iron Age warriors like Cuchulainn, Down’s founding story revolves around St Patrick.

McGrady reflected the calmer, more conciliatory style of the area he came from. Born in Downpatrick, he became an independent nationalist councillor on the town council in his twenties and helped form the Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) in 1970 with John Hume, becoming its first chairman. He continued as a local councillor on the new Down District council, becoming its chair and was given a key role in the stillborn 1973 Northern Ireland power-sharing executive.

When I first started taking an interest in Northern Irish politics South Down had a Unionist MP: Enoch Powell no less – back then 15 of the 17 MPs in the province were unionists of one form or another. Despite becoming a majority-Catholic constituency in the 1983 boundary changes, Powell hung on. McGrady contested Powell unsuccessfully in three elections (1979, 1983 and the 1986 Northern Ireland-wide by-elections) before finally squeaking to victory in 1987.

By 2001, his majority had grown to almost 14,000. He stood down as MP in 2010, successfully handling over the reins to his party colleague Margaret Ritchie.

Whilst perhaps a less dynamic force than John Hume or Seamus Mallon, he was an effective politician and passionate advocate for the Good Friday agreement. Behind the almost comically large glasses was a serious intellect and a passionate devotion to his constituents, catholic and protestant. Even when the party was on the wane, McGrady strongly believed that the SDLP had the critical role in Northern Irish politics in providing the bridge between Sinn Fein and the unionist parties. His vision was of a single community without religious divisions. It is a vision that needs people like Eddie to succeed.

***

Inez McCormack came from a very different part of County Down, up on its almost homogeneously unionist north coast. Indeed, she said “I was a puzzled young Prod – until I was 17 I hadn’t knowingly met a catholic. I was a young Protestant girl who didn’t understand that there were grave issues of inequality, injustice and division in our society”.

Her outlook changed when she went to college in Derry, at the time when the city was overlooked as the site for Northern Ireland’s second university in favour of the much smaller (and much more protestant) Coleraine. After going to university in Dublin and then marrying a Derry-man, she was convinced there was much that needed changing in Northern Ireland and became a member of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s just as it was beginning to attract unionist violence.

She became a social worker in West Belfast just as it was getting extremely violent there. When the city council tried to close her office down, she feared for those who would lose support and so organised her fellow workers to stay put, joining NUPE to get support.

This started her long career as a trade unionist, becoming NUPE’s first full-time female official in Northern Ireland. She focused in getting membership among female workers without traditional representation. She faced plenty of male hostility, being heckled off stage at a union meeting for raising childcare as an issue. But she won through, becoming the first female chair of the local trade union congress and the regional chair of Unison.

She played a pivotal role in the Good Friday agreement in ensuring employment rights, women’s rights and rights for the most marginalised communities on both sides of the communal line were on the agenda, and in ensuring that the union movement backed the agreement (remember, it was the unions that played a critical role in killing off power-sharing in the 1970s). For her, getting families moved out of crumbling tower blocks into new homes was more important than who ran which committee at Stormont – she founded the influential ‘the Participation and the Practice of Rights’ (PPR) organisation to make sure tackling disadvantage had momentum in the Peace Process.

In 2011, Newsweek identified her as one of 150 women that shook the world. And indeed, she did in a way that was absolutely crucial.

***

RIP:
Eddie McGrady 1935-2013
Inez McCormack 1943-2013

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: