Sally O’Neill, Rights Worker in Central America, Dies at 68

Sally O’Neill, Rights Worker in Central America, Dies at 68

The Reagan administration, which was backing the Salvadoran government with military and economic aid in an effort to counter a leftist insurgency, dismissed reports of the massacre, calling them Communist propaganda.

It was not until 1993, long after Ronald Reagan had left office, that a United Nations truth commission report, relying on classified documents from the United States government, concluded that groups of men, women and children had been tortured and “deliberately and systematically executed.”

Mr. Higgins said in a statement after Ms. O’Neill’s death that “when I visited Central America as president of Ireland in October 2013, she was present to hear the massacre — long denied — recognized as genocide. She was pleased to see the names of the dead remembered, and to meet the relatives of those killed.”

He added that as a human rights advocate, Ms. O’Neill was “relentless in calling on those with power to bring their influence to bear on the policies and politics that affected those most vulnerable.”

Ms. O’Neill was born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, in Northern Ireland and moved to Belfast when she was 18 to attend college. She then took a job in Latin America, where, she told The Irish News in 2018, she was working on a project, and traveling up the Amazon River when her party had to pull over to a small indigenous village because of rough rapids.

“A charity was working there on a health program, and I remember being instantly impressed with the work they were doing,” she said. The charity was Trocaire, and she joined it in 1978, just five years after its founding. She became an integral part of the organization’s growth and development.

She was soon leading delegations of Irish politicians and bishops to Central America so they could see the atrocities resulting from brutal civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She also served as a translator for Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador (who has since been declared a saint by the Catholic Church), six weeks before his assassination in 1980.

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