By Mellica McPherson-Ganda
On 6 July 2015, all of the Members that were present at the sitting of the House of Assembly voted in favour of bestowing the title of Member Emeritus to Former BVI Leader and Ninth District Representative, Hon. Ralph T. O’Neal for his years of service to the Territory and its people.
In moving the Motion to have the title bestowed on Hon. O’Neal – first Premier of the BVI, and immediate past Leader of the Opposition (former Chairman of the main opposition –Second-term Premier Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith reflected on Hon. O’Neal’s legislative service – a service that commenced with his election in September 1975 as member for the Seventh District (then Virgin Gorda), then later as Ninth District from 1979 to the 2011 election.
Premier Smith pointed out that outside of the realm of politics Hon. O’Neal has served in many other public service capacities, and has been a great stalwart to many non-governmental causes.
The BVI Leader announced: “Mr. O’Neal has basically been the consummate politician, he is a great statesman, and one who has worked tirelessly for the good of the people of the British Virgin Islands and particularly for the good of the people that he represented.”
“You have devoted yourself to the people of the British Virgin Islands and I want to thank you sincerely and by bestowing this honour on you, we hope that this is the beginning of the recognition that you have obtained,” Hon. Smith added before thanking the family of Hon. O’Neal for their support as well.
Speaker of the House of Assembly, Hon. Ingrid Moses showered praises on Hon. O’Neal, and praised his achievement: “You are a historian, a walking encyclopaedia and as the young people would say – you are the Google on the history of the Virgin Islands. You are a civic-minded individual and have been for many years. You have been involved at the highest level at the BVI Red Cross. You umpired cricket… You are a founding member of the Rotary Club of Tortola.”
“On a personal note I have had to deal with you in your capacity as the Chief Minister, I always found you to be forthright; and always willing to render assistance. I would like to state on the record my profound thank you Hon. Ralph Telford O’Neal for your outstanding service to the Territory; and I look forward to reading your soon to be published memoirs,” the Speaker said.
The anxiousness to read Hon. O’Neal’s promised memoir was conveyed by many other Members of the House of Assembly. In a similar manner at least three Legislators asked that a place or landmark be named in Honour of Hon. O’Neal.
Deputy Premier and Minister for Natural Resources and Labour, Dr. the Hon. Kedrick Pickering in his tribute told the House that “We are making history today! We are making history because I don’t know that there is any other time in the history of the House where we have bestowed the honour of this nature to an individual who has served in the House.”
Hon. Pickering explained that to his understanding the Member Emeritus title means that Hon. O’Neal will carry the title Hon. R T O’Neal in an official capacity until thy kingdom comes: “Although we refer to past members as honourable it would be official in this instance, so I am happy to be a part of history,” he said.
“I can’t stand here and tell you that in my years in this House that we have agreed on all issues, and it certainly won’t be speaking the truth if I said that we haven’t had some major disagreements…I am sure you can find a number of things to criticize him on, you could find a number of things to criticize any of us on, because that’s what public life is all about — when you are in the kitchen you got to feel the heat,” Hon. Pickering stated.
Minister for Communications and Works, Hon. Mark Vanterpool announced that he was glad that the Emeritus title was being bestowed on Hon. O’Neal at this time: “We want today pay respect and I am pleased that Mr. O’Neal is able to be here with us. We tend to give these accolades later on, but we are glad that today we have been able to give the accolades while he is here with us and enjoying our company; and I look forward to more of that over the next several years as he retires from politics,” the Communications and Works Minster said.
Minister for Education and Culture, Hon. Myron Walwyn shared a personal story of how Hon. O’Neal helped him in his private life. Following the story, the Minister said: “When you called upon Mr. O’Neal for help with something you could always walk away knowing he was going to assist you, and so he is known to be a man of his word.”
Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly, Hon. Delores Christopher declared that Hon. O’Neal has a spectacular track record. “Hon. Ralph O’Neal has been fearless in his defence for the rights of Virgin Islanders, and was never afraid to make his position known…He can be humorous, he can be soft, compassionate, but he can be firm, controversial and decisive when he has to, but always in his view looking out for the country.”
Sixth District Representative, Hon. Alvera Maduro-Caines in her contribution shared a personal story of how Hon. O’Neal represented her when she was being forced out of her employment. She also spoke of how she became fonder of Mr. O’Neal when she became a Legislator and added that she will miss their lunchtime chats: “Mr. O’Neal you are an icon in your own right…I thank you so much for loving both people and your country.”
At Large Representative, Hon. Archibald Christian recalled the respectful nature of Hon. O’Neal. “I know that we traded some punches on the campaign trail from time to time, but I respected the fact that once we came into this House Mr. O’Neal showed me the respect that all of us should be displaying when we come here. There are a number of areas that he has given me some hints on, but I won’t disclose at this time.”
Dr. the Hon. Hubert O’Neal, who succeeded the veteran legislator as Ninth District Representative, explained the love that the people of that District have for their former Representative. “He (Hon. Ralph O’Neal) meant everything to Virgin Gordians! He was the main provider in every way, whether it meant getting a birth certificate, renewing a passport, securing a work permit for someone, getting a scholarship, building a retaining wall, securing title for land; and yes, I understand he even wrote love letters for those guys who couldn’t or were afraid to make the approach. As you can see, Mr. O’Neal was quite an institution within himself.”
The Ninth District Representative caused contagious laughter in the House when he said: “I must mention though, that we were political rivals. My brother coudn’t get him beat, and you could safely say I couldn’t get him beat; so I thank God for his retirement now that I have been given this opportunity to sit in this seat – thank you Mr. O’Neal.”
Third District Representative, Hon. Julian Fraser in a touching tribute said: “We don’t know if anyone can fill your shoes Mr. O’Neal. This that is happening here today is the beginning of a lot of things that is going to happen to you between now and even after you are gone. Mr. O’Neal these things are going to continue because there is so much that you have done, not just for your District, but for this Territory; and the Caribbean as a whole. You have inspired leaders in the Caribbean. I have watched you in our travels over the years. I saw how you interacted with the other leaders of the Caribbean, how they admired you, so what you have done is not only for this Territory, it is for the Caribbean.”
First District Representative, Hon. Andrew Fahie explained that he entered the House of Assembly while he was in his 20s and said that Hon. O’Neal has been a mentor of his. The First District Representative broke down in tears towards the end of his contribution as he stated that he will miss having Hon. O’Neal in the House.
Hon. Fahie in his tribute said that over the years he has learned to emulate Hon. O’Neal’s calm demeanour. He also listed some of the sayings that he has heard from Mr. O’Neal over the years and said that the former Leader of the Opposition had a timely saying for any situation. Mr. Fahie noted that sometimes it might appear that Hon. O’Neal was asleep, but said that he has learnt over the years that the statesman was always aware and alert: “I have learned that, though his eyes are closed he is far from sleep, and I learnt that the hard way.”
“I know that he had challenging times in politics…They tried to bury Mr. O’Neal many times…The more dirt they tried to throw over him, the stronger he grew, and the higher he rose, and that came from him having his base in God…I will miss you not being in this honourable house. I will miss your natural being of being a walking law book…a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge,” the First District Representative added.
All of the legislators thanked Hon. O’Neal’s family especially Mrs. Edris O’Neal for their support and contribution over the years.
Hon. O’Neal Responds
In his response Hon. O’Neal said that he was grateful for the honour that was being bestowed on him : “Madame Speaker I am very grateful to you and the Hon. House, and I am happy to be here. I want to thank the House for the kind remarks made and the good wishes.”
Hon. O’Neal thanked the Speaker of the House Hon. Moses for allowing him to remain seated while he spoke in the House during the sittings. “I am very thankful to you (Speaker) for doing that… It was very kind and I appreciated it very much. All of the Members of the House made sure that if I had to go in or out one of the Members would be there to make sure I had a guiding hand…so that I didn’t get a fall…I am very thankful for that.”
Hon. O’Neal particularly identified Hon. Pickering and Hon. Walwyn as Members of the House who would assist him by holding his hands: “The Members looked after me very well…Mrs. Caines made sure I had my lunch,” he said.
“Madame Speaker I have enjoyed the time in the House both as a member and as a clerk…I had a happy time in the House…there were some good debates…I wish to thank all of you including the Clerk and other members of House and office; and wish them well and that all will go well for them in years to come. I’d like to thank the driver who also has been a great help,” he added.
Hon. O’Neal also thanked his wife for the help that she has provided to him over the years and shared that Mrs. O’Neal also assisted with his typing. Now Hon. O’Neal said that he looks forward to a quiet retirement: “I just want to sit down and do my writing, read some books and so on….I’d like to take it easy.”