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Tributes to Trócaire's Sally O'Neill killed in car crash in Guatemala

Dungannon human rights defender Sally O'Neill, who has died following a car crash, was at the heart of Trócaire's work for almost 40 years
Mairead Holland

A CO Tyrone woman described as the "heartbeat" of charity Trócaire for almost 40 years has died following a car crash in Guatemala.

Sally O’Neill, a mother-of-three, was originally from Dungannon but had been living and working in Honduras.

Although she had retired from Trócaire in April 2015 she continued to work as a volunteer, championing human rights.

Trócaire chief executive Caoimhe de Barra, who was with Ms O'Neill last week in Guatemala, said the charity was "heartbroken" by her death.

Read More: Sally O'Neill's journey from Tyrone to Honduras, via the Amazon, El Salvador and Somalia

"She was a truly remarkable person. Trócaire 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," she said.

“Despite having officially retired, 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."

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.”

Ms O'Neill joined Trócaire in 1978 and prior to her retirement was the charity's head of region for Latin America.

She was also involved in providing famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s and established Trócaire’s programme in famine-hit Somalia in the early 1990s.

A statement released by Trócaire said that throughout her career Ms O'Neill worked on the frontline during some of the most significant global humanitarian crises.

She was in Central America when civil wars were being fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua and oversaw humanitarian aid to more than two million refugees.

She also led delegations of politicians and bishops to the region, translating for Archbishop Oscar Romero six weeks before he was murdered.

In 1982, Ms O'Neill and Michael D Higgins (who was then a TD) visited El Salvador to investigate reports of a massacre in the village of El Mozote.

There, they uncovered evidence of mass slaughter of civilians and their report made its way onto the pages of the international media including the New York Times and Washington Post.

Ms O'Neill was awarded the Hugh O´Flaherty Humanitarian Award in 2011 and the following year President Higgins appointed her to the selection panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad in 2012.

President Higgins praised the "brilliance, compassion, and limitless courage" Ms O'Neill brought to her work.

"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," he said.

"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 Sanchez 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."

Tanáiste and foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney praised Ms O'Neill as a "remarkable woman who made a tremendous contribution to Irish society and to disadvantaged communities across the world".

In July 2017 she was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Law degree by the University of Ulster.

In retirement, she volunteered as a facilitator with prisoners and migrants in Honduras, and also lectured in Development Studies at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras in the country's capital.

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