Female factory workers deserve their place in history

Sandra Chapman
Sandra Chapman

The late, great Northern Irish Trade Union leader and human rights activist Inez McCormack will be turning in her grave this week at the news that artwork dedicated to the factory girls of Londonderry, a magnificent sculpture which she supported, is to be scrapped.

The artwork, by leading Irish artist Louise Walsh, has had £85,000 of public money spent on it by the Department of Communities but now Derry and Strabane District Council have been told it no longer represents value for money as it would cost £330,000 to complete. This, in the week when Northern Ireland’s Equality Commissioner Dr Michael Wardlow found himself defending his decision to spend more than £250,000 of public money defending a gay rights activist involved in the failed Ashers cake case, a case many thought was doomed from the start. Another £250,000 will have to be spent for the defendant’s costs, the McArthurs who owned the bakery involved.

Inez McCormack

Inez McCormack

On top of this squandered money is the on-going RHI debacle and who knows how much public money has been and will continue to be squandered there.

I took an interest in the factory girls tribute when I was a feature writer for this newspaper.

In those days Inez McCormack was a much revered figure and the artist had suggested I talk to Inez who believed the artwork would be a great way of remembering and acknowledging the hard work of the factory girls.

Not long before, I had been in Canada where I did the tourist trip to Mount Rushmore to see the massive sculpture of former presidents hewn out of the mountain. That was the first time I’d ever seen a modern sculpture on this scale. Big and beautiful was the trend at the time. And that was how Louise Walsh saw her vision for the working women of our historic city.

The factory girls sewing machine sculpture to be erected in the city’s Harbour Square would have been seen for miles around.

No one could ever have forgotten the hard working women’s sacrifices in the mills of Londonderry when pay and conditions left a lot to be desired. Ms Walsh started work on the sculpture in 2006.

Her artwork can also be seen in Belfast’s Amelia Street, the city’s former red light district where two colourful ‘cartoon’ life size female figures represent the women who plied their trade there.

Inez McCormack never sat in judgement of women. She once said her greatest achievement was ``seeing the glint in the eye of the woman who thought she was nobody and now realises she is somebody’’.

She fought for the inclusion of women in the Good Friday Agreement and was regarded as one of the world’s leading campaigners for the rights of low-paid workers and for women’s rights.

I’m certain had she been alive today she would not have been happy about this failure on the part of a local authority to continue with a sculpture which represented the role of women in a vital part of history. I remember the city council at the time prevaricating when the sculpture was partly created. I had suspected they were baulking at the cost but they refused to discuss further costing with me. I knew Inez was not happy about it either. Ms Walsh was left in limbo-land, a dreadful place for an artist to be. She had to move on and the sculpture languished in storage. The council today anticipate it will cost four times the amount already spent to complete. But what do they intend to do with something that has cost a lot of money already? They can’t possibly leave it to rust or be found one day by a new generation which happened to open the store door. Londonderry has had a lot of money spent on it, opening the city to a new generation of sailors and Tall Ships. Its Guildhall area is a wonderful public space and I went there one day just to walk the Peace Bridge with a Canadian visitor.

Yet the city fathers are in danger of forgetting the past and I’m not just referring to the days of the famous Siege. Its women deserve their place in that history.