Ralph O'Neal
The day of former Premier Ralph O’Neal’s funeral has been declared a public holiday. (File Photo: CHRYSTALL KANYUCK)

The government has declared a “national period of mourning” in honour of Ralph O’Neal, the territory’s first premier, who died at his McNamara home on Monday afternoon following a long illness. He was 85.

Mr. O’Neal, who rose from humble beginnings on Virgin Gorda to the highest elected office in the land, represented Virgin Gorda and Anegada from 1975 to 2015, and for 12 of those years he served as leader of the territory over the course of two terms as chief minister and one term as premier.

During that time, the VI grew from a largely subsistence economy into a booming tourism destination and one of the world’s leading offshore financial services centres.

Though Mr. O’Neal’s record was not without controversy — during his career, he was accused of election fraud and other corrupt practices — he emerged apparently unscathed from such allegations and returned to office for 10 consecutive terms, becoming the longest-serving representative in VI history.

This week, government officials including Premier Andrew Fahie and Speaker of the House Julian Willock responded to his death by expressing sadness and recounting memories of his service to the territory.

“Honourable O’Neal could be described as one of the last bastions of politics as we knew it in the Virgin Islands,” Mr. Fahie said Monday. “He was a gentleman who commanded decorum and upheld the greatest respect for this House. He was indeed a teacher and a pillar of exemplary work not only for us who were trained under his guidance and good advice, but for his other political peers in the Caribbean region and perhaps the world.”

According to Mr. Willock’s statement, Mr. O’Neal died at 2 p.m. on Monday surrounded by family members at his home.

“Above all, it was his warm, personal qualities that brought special lustre to his years in public and political life,” the speaker said.

The period of mourning, which was announced Tuesday, will last until the official funeral and burial on a date to be announced, according to government.

Early years

Born in 1933, Mr. O’Neal started his career in public service at the age of 18 when he became a public school teacher in Road Town before moving on to teach in East End. He later became principal of the North Sound School in Virgin Gorda and studied public administration at the University of Oxford in England.

Ralph O’Neal at the University of Oxford in England circa 1960s. (Photo: FACEBOOK)

He became the second clerk of the Legislative Council in 1958, and he also served as administrative secretary to legislator H.R. Penn and to Chief Minister H. Lavity Stoutt before he left the civil service to enter the private sector.

He was first elected to the legislature in 1975 under Mr. Stoutt’s Virgin Islands Party, and he served as minister of social services from 1979 to 1983 and as deputy chief minister and natural resources and labour minister from 1988 to 1994.

Around that time, he was also facing a challenge that would prove to be the biggest controversy of his career.

After Mr. O’Neal triumphed in the 1990 election over his cousin Allen O’Neal by 28 votes, the defeated District Nine candidate raised concerns about the proxy votes received by his opponent, accusing him of being corrupt and engaging in fraudulent election practices.

In 1991 Ralph O’Neal sued his cousin over the comments, but after a lengthy civil trial a High Court judge ruled in Allen O’Neal’s favour in 1994, citing evidence that Ralph O’Neal had abused the proxy voting system.

The judge also outlined evidence suggesting that he had misappropriated Crown land and had held an illegal contract with Shell Antilles and Guianas Ltd. to serve as the company’s business adviser from 1982 to 1992 while holding political office.

Though Mr. O’Neal maintained his innocence and no criminal charges were filed against him, he resigned from his ministerial role shortly after the lawsuit while still remaining a representative in the Legislative Council.

Chief minister

However, he was re-elected in the 1995 general election and appointed deputy chief minister as well as minister of health, education and welfare. After the sudden death of Chief Minister H. Lavity Stoutt the same year, he took over as chief minister and assumed the leadership of the VIP, which he led until his retirement in 2015.

Mr. O’Neal continued serving as chief minister until the VIP’s 17-year reign was broken in the 2003 election by Dr. Orlando Smith’s National Democratic Party.

He was opposition leader for the next four years, but his VIP returned to power in a 2007 landslide and he became the VI’s first premier, an office that replaced chief minister under the new Constitution that took effect the same year.

Although he had opposed some of the Constitutional changes in the earlier London negotiations, he and his other government ministers took on more responsibility than previously granted to elected officials in the VI.

He later served as opposition leader for four more years after the NDP returned to power in 2011, but announced in 2014 that he would not contest the 2015 election.

Asking for autonomy

Throughout his time in office, Mr. O’Neal repeatedly clashed with the governor and the United Kingdom, often advocating for more autonomy and responsibility to be given to elected leaders.

“He has made contributions to these islands on many levels, including as an administrator, teacher, political leader, and in several other capacities,” Dr. Smith, his long-time political rival, said at the time of his retirement. “[Mr. O’Neal] was steadfastly committed to the development of the Virgin Gorda and Anegada communities, as well as the wider Virgin Islands.”

Though Mr. O’Neal took on various national leadership positions, many of his constituents have agreed that he also remained deeply committed to serving as district representative for the two sister islands.

On his native Virgin Gorda, he oversaw a rapid expansion of tourism; major improvements in transportation and infrastructure; and population growth from 1,200 in 1980 to around 4,000 by the time of his retirement. Also during his tenure, government compulsorily acquired The Baths in 1987 and promptly declared them a national park.

Social services improved markedly on the island as well. In 1984, for example, seven students formed the first graduating class of the Bregado Flax Educational Centre, the island’s first secondary school. Before BFEC was established, students had to attend school on Tortola and find someone to board with or else travel back and forth every day.

Mr. O’Neal, an officer of the Order of the British Empire, was also a founding member of the Rotary Club of Road Town, an active leader in the BVI Red Cross, and an avid cricket player.

Later years

After his retirement, Mr. O’Neal struggled with health issues, suffering a stroke in late 2016, but he was repeatedly honoured for his contributions to the territory.

The House of Assembly granted him “member emeritus” status in 2015, and last month he was lauded in the HOA as legislators voted to rename the Central Administration Building in his honour.

Transportation, Works and Utilities Minister Kye Rymer in his remarks credited Mr. O’Neal’s leadership with the growth of financial services, the increased recognition of the needs of the sister islands by the central government, the establishment of statutory bodies, and the implementation of the United States visa waiver initiative.

At the time, members from both sides of the aisle reflected fondly on their time with him, both personally and professionally.

Opposition member Alvera Maduro-Caines (R-D6) recalled eating lunch with him during HOA sittings after she was first elected in 2011. She recounted how they would chat about cricket and religion, and how he would offer her political advice.

Opposition Leader Marlon Penn added, “I saw the way he conducted himself with first-class integrity, [performing] his duties diligently even in the twilight of his political career.”