Belfast Telegraph

Tributes to Trocaire worker Sally O'Neill who died in Guatemala road crash

Sally O’Neill was a highly respected force for human rights
Sally O’Neill was a highly respected force for human rights
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Tributes have been paid to respected Co Tyrone aid worker Sally O'Neill who has died in a road accident in Central America.

Ms O'Neill, who was in her late 60s, was working with a local human rights organisation in Guatemala when she died with three co-workers on Sunday.

It's understood the accident happened in Mirador Huan Dieguez, 180 miles north of Guatemala city.

Originally from Dungannon, she had retired from Trocaire in 2015 after 37 years of service and was based in Honduras.

Former colleagues were "shocked and devastated" and described her as "the heartbeat of Trocaire for almost 40 years".

Irish President Michael D Higgins, who had been a friend of Ms O'Neill for decades, was "greatly saddened" by her death.

CEO of Trocaire Caoimhe de Barra said she was "heartbroken" by her passing. "She was a truly remarkable person. Trocaire was only five years old when Sally joined," she said.

"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."

Ms de Barra met Ms O'Neill just last week in Guatemala, and said even in retirement she remained "a driving force for human rights in Central America".

"Her drive, passion and commitment was as strong as ever.

"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."

She added: "Our hearts go out to Sally's family, particularly her children Roger, Rhona and Xio, and her husbandRoger.

"Although we still cannot believe she is gone, we know that she left an incredible footprint on the world."

Ms O'Neill's career was dedicated to working with the poor, marginalised and victims of human rights abuses.

She worked mainly on Trocaire projects in Latin America but also helped with famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and in Somalia in the early 1990s.

Before retiring she was Trocaire's head of region for Latin America and based in Honduras.

Her work in the continent came at a time when civil wars were being fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

During this time it's estimated she oversaw humanitarian aid to over two million refugees.

She also led delegations of politicians and bishops to Central America to see the suffering first-hand. This included translating for Archbishop Oscar Romero, six weeks before his murder.

In 1982 she visited El Salvador with Mr Higgins, who was a TD at the time, to investigate reports of a massacre in the village of El Mozote.

After initially being refused entry, they uncovered evidence of the massacres, which made international headlines in media including the New York Times and Washington Post.

As Irish President, Mr Higgins presented her with several humanitarian awards, and in 2017 she received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from Ulster University.

Yesterday Mr Higgins said: "To have known Sally O'Neill Sanchez 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."

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