The sad news that Hon. Ralph Telford O’Neal, OBE, passed away on 11 November created a sad aura in the British Virgin Islands as Hon. O’Neal was a highly regarded statesman and the longest serving legislator in the Territory’s and English-speaking Caribbean history.
The news of Hon. O’Neal’s passing was delivered to the public by the Government Information Service following confirmation from the departed legislator’s family.
In his young years he attended a two-month course at the University of the West Indies and later attended Trinity College, Oxford University in England. He held the Diploma in Government and Political Science and the Diploma in Economic Development. In the latter he specialized in the study of the development of small countries gaining distinctions in both.
Hon. O’Neal dedicated many years of his life to public service. The recognition of this is especially noted in the fact that he is only member of the House of Assembly to have been conferred with the title of Member Emeritus and his passing comes a few weeks after the House of Assembly unanimously passed a motion to rename the Central Administration Complex in his honour.
This beloved statesman commenced his life of public service as a teacher at the East End Elementary School, then Road Town Elementary School. His career as an educator continued in 1953 when he was appointed Head Teacher of the North Sound Elementary School.
In 1956, Hon. O’Neal became the Clerk of the Legislative Council and a Junior Administrative Officer. Among his career accolades there are many firsts as Hon. O’Neal was the Territory’s First Telecommunications Officer and the first Labour Commissioner and the First Premier of the BVI.
He served as Senior Officer in the Ministry of Trade and Production, Clerk of the Executive Council, Acting Treasurer, Chief Education Officer, Secretary to the Government and Secretary to the Administrator, now known as Deputy Governor.
Hon. O’Neal’s tenure as a political representative commenced in 1971 when he ran for a seat in the Legislative Council as the Representative for the then Seventh District. However, he did not succeed in that run. In the next elections, 1975, Hon. O’Neal ran again and won.
In 1974, he was awarded the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE), for his service to the community. He was also a Justice of the Peace, a Commissioner for Oaths and a Notary Public.
In 1979 the Ninth District was constituted to include Anegada; and in that election Hon. O’Neal was elected the representative of that District with 70.8 percent of the votes. It is a seat that he held until his retirement.
During his legislative career Hon. O’Neal was the first Minister of Social Services. He served as Minister of Natural Resources and Labour, Minister of Health and Welfare and Minister of Education and Culture. He was appointed Deputy Chief Minister in 1988. In 1995 Mr. O’Neal led the Virgin Islands Party to victory and became Chief Minister of the British Virgin Islands. He held this post until June 2003, a total of eight years. In addition to his duties as Chief Minister and Minister of Finance, Mr. O’Neal was also Chairman of the Board of Governors of the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College and was very active in community work.
In 2007 he headed the Virgin Islands Party (VIP) to a veritable landslide victory: as a result he became the first Premier of the British Virgin Islands and was able to lead the country successfully through a severe world recession. Many natives and residents praise his leadership by noting that in such a complex period no public servant was laid off and no salaries were cut and – actually – there was growth in tourism and the financial sector.
Among his major achievements are: the creation of the BVI Office in central London; the T. B. Lettsome International Airport at Beef Island; the new Queen Elizabeth Bridge linking Tortola to Beef Island; the Millennium celebrations and initiatives; community centres on Anegada, Virgin Gorda and Tortola; the expansion of the BVI Electricity plant at Pockwood Pond; and the steady growth of the H.L. Stoutt Community College.
Hon. O’Neal is survived by his wife, the former Edris Christopher, now Rev. Edris O’Neal and his four children.
The publishers, management and staff of The Island Sun newspaper extend sincere heartfelt condolences to the family, relatives and friends of the late Hon. R. T. O’Neal. He will be fondly remembered and sadly missed.