Sometimes it is only when someone passes away that you start to see who they really were, and how much they rubbed off on you. This week Sally O’Neill, one of the founders of Trócaire, and shining lights of the human rights community, was taken from us suddenly in a road traffic accident. Her passing has sent shock waves through Trócaire and the wider development and human rights community
On Monday morning, when the news broke, Tròcaire office felt like a dark place. It literally felt like someone had switched off all the lights – a palpable grief and shock was on everyone’s faces. Many, like me, knew Sally mainly as a colleague who visited several times a year from Honduras and someone who looked after us on field trips to Central America. For others in Trócaire, Sally was much much more. She was like a mother figure, a guardian, a mentor – a towering figure who had literally formed generations of mainly women in her passion for a just world. We even talked in Trócaire of someone “being one of Sally’s”. We were all ‘one of Sally’s’ in a way – her infectious zest for life rubbed off on anyone who met her.
It was Maya Angelou who said: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” And this was Sally all over: she had the rare gift of making everyone she met feel like the only person that mattered in that moment. She loved people and had an insatiable interest in others and how they were doing. She had an incredible capacity to remember details about peoples lives. My last encounter with her last summer was like that – we shared a glass of wine during Pope Francis’ visit, and chatted about all the goings on. What I remember is that, as ever, she made me feel so special as she kept telling me how wonderful I looked! I left that encounter feeling a million dollars.
And Sally was always like this, yet she was more than a kind and generous soul. She embodied a spirit of courageous love that few of us ever see. My enduring memory of Sally will be from a trip I made to Honduras and Nicaragua in 2008. It was a deep if brief immersion into her life as a fearless advocate against injustice. Up till then I had spent most of my career writing about international development and producing policy analysis. I had travelled extensively in Latin America, but I had never come face to face with the brutality of repression and inhumanity. I knew it existed, but I understood it as an academic concept rather than lived realities. I could study these ideas from the comfort and safety of my office.
Meeting Sally in Honduras and spending a few weeks with her changed all that. Everywhere we went we heard stories of people, especially women, being empowered by the support they received from Trócaire. The warmth of Sally towards the partners and vice versa was tangible. They were more than just partners in the contractual sense – they had each others’ backs.
As well as the good news, we also heard of abuses of corporate power and unexplained deaths of those who spoke up against injustice. We had dinner with an LGBTI activist, who spoke of death threats and intimidation. We visited Berta Caceres, a very well known human rights activist, in her office in Tegucigalpa to discuss the murder of two colleagues. Just that day her own office had been raided and hard drives had been stolen. As we visited partner after partner, I had the distinct feeling that we were under surveillance. I mentioned this to Sally and she shrugged as if to say ‘you are probably right – but that’s our life here’.
On one occasion we were brought to a gold mine to accompany a church partner investigating arsenic poisoning on a very remote community. Sally stayed back with the local bishop and I went with the partner on the trecherous road up to the gold mine. As we approached a check point the partner turned to me and asked me to hide my camera. “If they make us stop you need to swallow the memory card as you could put others in danger.” Someone trespassing on the mine had been shot months before so it was wise to be careful. I have to say I was frozen with fear – whether the risk was real or not, I felt there was a good chance I could be murdered there and then. I struggled to keep calm, thinking “I didn’t sign up for this!” My cosy, office based view of development work was turned upside down in that moment. Thankfully nobody was hurt that day.
Until then I had not really understood the actual risks of brave people, like Sally, who worked on the front line of powerful human rights abusers, whether states, corporations or both. I knew about it in my head – but there I experienced it in my body. Both the LGBTI activist and Berta were murdered in the years following the trip. They paid the ultimate price for their courage. Sally bore this burden lightly, at least externally, and made us all feel at ease. Yet she knew the risks. Most likely, for Sally, it was only her international profile that kept her out of harms way. She often advocated that Trócaire raise the profile of the partners – bringing them to Ireland and gaining international attention sometimes can act as a deterrent.
But sadly, no amount of international profile could save her from the daily dangers she faced in her life. Everyone knows road traffic accidents are by far the biggest killer for aid workers. 90% of all road deaths globally now happen in developing countries. Surely that, in itself, is a human right that needs protecting.
Rest in Peace, Sally. Your legacy is only beginning.