Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland aid worker dies in Guatemala

Sally O'Neill
Sally O'Neill
Sally O'Neill

An aid worker from Northern Ireland has died in a road accident in Guatemala.

Sally O'Neill died alongside three others in a crash in the Mirador Juan Dieguez area almost 200 miles from Guatemala City on Sunday.

From Dungannon she worked for charity organisation Trocaire for almost 40 years having joined when the organisation was just five years old working to help the poor, the marginalised and victims of human rights abuses. She retired from Trocaire in April 2015 after 37 years of service.

The 69-year-old had been Trocaire’s Head of Region for Latin America based in Honduras. Despite retirement she continued to work in a voluntary capacity in Central America.

She is survived by her husband and three children.

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins paid tribute to Mrs O'Neill. He said knowing her was a privilege. He said working with Trocaire Sally "distinguished herself for four decades through her commitment and unstinting belief in the dignity and inherent equality of all human being".

"I was privileged to have her as a friend and will never forget the brilliant guidance and assistance she provided on so many occasions and in so many places," he said.

"I thank her for her work, in most recent years, as a member of the High-Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.

"She will be missed by so many, but most acutely by her family, her wide circle of friends and her former colleagues in Trocaire."

Trocaire's chief executive said news of the death had caused "shock and devastation" describing Mrs O'Neill as "truly remarkable".

Sally O'Neill with Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina Coyle on her retirement in 2015.
Sally O'Neill with Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina Coyle on her retirement in 2015.

Caoimhe de Barra said: “We are heartbroken by this news. Sally was the heartbeat of Trocaire for almost 40 years. She was a truly remarkable person.

"Trocaire was only five years old when Sally joined. Sally 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."

Sally's legacy will live on through the thousands of people whose lives she helped to improve.

Sally worked primarily on Trocaire projects in Latin America but she was also involved in providing famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and established Trocaire’s programme in Somalia in the early 1990s in response to the famine.

Throughout her career Sally worked on the frontline during some of the most significant global humanitarian crises.

She worked in Central America at a time when civil wars were being fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees in the Central American region during those conflicts years.

Sally led delegations of politicians and bishops to Central America so they could see the suffering, translating for Archbishop Oscar Romero six weeks before he was murdered.

In 1982, Sally and Michael D Higgins (who was then a TD) 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 its way onto the pages of the international media, including the New York Times and Washington Post.

"Her early work in Central America was ground-breaking," continued President Higgins.

"Sally understood the importance of combining tangible assistance and practical compassion with the pursuit of long-term solutions to the root causes of poverty, marginalisation and oppression. 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.

"With the same professionalism, ease and conviction as Sally O’Neill led delegations of politicians and bishops to witness the suffering of marginalised communities throughout Central America, she was able to bring those previously without a voice to the corridors of power at international conferences."

Sally was appointed by President Higgins as a member of the High Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in 2012 and awarded the Hugh O´Flaherty Humanitarian Award in 2011. In July 2017 she was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Law degree by the University of Ulster.

Following her retirement, Sally continued to work in a voluntary capacity as a facilitator with prisoners and migrants in Honduras, where she lived.  As well as her ongoing work with human rights organisations in Central America, she lectured in Development Studies in the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras in Tegucigalpa.

"Her drive, passion and commitment was as strong as ever," Caoimhe de Barra added, "Sally was much beloved by communities and human rights activists throughout Central America.

"She dedicated her life to improving the lives of others. Her legacy will live on through the thousands of people whose lives she helped to improve.

“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.”

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