Trócaire stalwart Sally O’Neill dies in car crash in Guatemala

‘We are heartbroken by this news. Sally was the heartbeat of Trócaire for almost 40 years’

 Sally O’Neill pictured at Áras An Uachtarain in March 2015 with President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins. Photograph: Maxwell’s

Sally O’Neill pictured at Áras An Uachtarain in March 2015 with President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins. Photograph: Maxwell’s

 

Tributes have been paid to Sally O’Neill, a leading figure in the overseas development organisation Trócaire, after her death in a car crash in Guatemala.

President Michael D Higgins said “news of the death of my friend Sally O’Neill Sanchez and three of her co-workers has greatly saddened me, as it will have all those who knew Sally’s remarkable work for human rights and a global response to poverty.”

He said that to have known her “was a privilege. To have been with her in some of the places of conflict, distress and human suffering was to see the brilliance, compassion, and limitless courage she brought to her engagement with the poor, the oppressed, and the displaced.

He offered he and his wife Sabina’s “deepest condolences to the families of the four victims, and in particular to Sally’s husband Roger and their children, Roger, Rhona and Xiao, and to all those who knew her.”

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he was “greatly saddened” by the news. “ Sally was a remarkable woman who made a tremendous contribution to Irish society and to disadvantaged communities across the world. She presented the best of what it is to be Irish, working tirelessly to empower those impacted by poverty and injustice,” he said.

The Department was providing consular assistance “through the Irish Embassy in Mexico and Honorary Consul of Ireland in Guatemala. All possible assistance will be provided to the family at this difficult time,” he said.

Trócaire, the Catholic bishops’ overseas development agency,for which she worked over almost four decades, expressed its “profound shock and devastation” at the news.

The agency’s chief executive Caoimhe de Barra said “we are heartbroken.” She continued: “ Sally was the heartbeat of Trócaire for almost 40 years. She was a truly remarkable person. Trócaire was only five years old when Sally joined.”

She had “built the foundations of the organisation. She embodied our values and through her courage and commitment to human rights touched the lives of so many people. I was with Sally last week in Guatemala. Despite having officially retired, she remained a driving force for human rights in Central America”.

Ms de Barra added “our hearts go out to Sally’s family, particularly her children Roger, Rhona and Xio, and her husband, Roger. Although we still cannot believe she is gone, we know that she left an incredible footprint on the world”.

Chairman of Trócaire Bishop William Crean, expressed his deep sorrow and condolences to her family.

“I wish to echo the tribute of Archbishop Eamon Martin who described Sally as ‘a true missionary of mercy and justice’. Through Sally’s work with marginalised and vulnerable communities around the world, and particularly in her beloved Latin America, Sally has left an enormous legacy.

“Sally’s untimely death has shocked so many people who loved her dearly”.

From Dungannon Co Tyrone Sally O’Neill worked with Trócaire for 37 years and was head of region for Latin America when she retired in April 2015.

According to the website of Guatemalan newspaper, ElPerodico, the acccident happened on Sunday night in the Huehuetenango region of western Guatemala. The newspaper said that for reasons yet unknown, the car fell 300 metres from the Los Calambres bridge into a ravine on kilomtetre 191 of the Inter-American Highway. It says three others died in the accident, two other female human rights workers and a male driver.

President Higgins marked her retirement with a lunch at Áras an Uachtaráin in honour of her contribution to overseas development and human rights.

In 1982 Mr Higgins, then a TD, and Ms O’Neill visited El Salvador to investigate reports of a massacre in the village of El Mozote. They were initially refused entry into the country but were eventually granted access.

They uncovered evidence of a massacre of civilians and their report from El Mozote made it onto the pages of the international media, including the New York Times and Washington Post.

In his statement on her death President Higgins recalled how “many years later when I visited Central America as President of Ireland in October 2013 she was present to hear the massacre, long denied, recognised as genocide. She was pleased to see the names of the dead remembered, and to meet the relatives of those killed.”

“Through her work she empowered countless people and she was relentless in calling on those with power to bring their influence to bear on the policies and politics that affected those most vulnerable,” he said.

During her time as deputy director and head of Trócaire’s international department, Ms O’Neill took overall charge of its work in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Shortly after she joined Trócaire in 1978 she led delegations of politicians and bishops to Central America so they could see the suffering caused there by three bitter civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

She also ended up translating for Archbishop Oscar Romero (now a Saint) at San Salvador six weeks before he was murdered by military in March 1980.

She oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees in the Central American region over the following years and then worked in Ethiopia during the mid-1980s famine.

In the early 1990 she established Trócaire’s programme in Somalia responding to famine there and it remains one of the few agencies that has stayed with the people of Somalia since.

She was awarded the the Hugh O´Flaherty Humanitarian Award in 2011 for outstanding humanitarian work and in 2012 President Higgins appointed her to the selection panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.

After her retirement in 2015 she continued in that role as well as working in a voluntary capacity as facilitator with prisoners in Honduras who have been wrongfully convicted, and migrants in transit.

In July 2017 she was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the University of Ulster in recognition of her work on overseas development and human rights.