One of the leading figures in the republican movement in Ireland over the past 50 years died late Wednesday night in hospital.
An honorary life vice-president of Republican Sinn Féin at the time of his death, Mr O’Neill was closely involved in the foundation of both Provisional and Republican Sinn Féin.
In 1970, Mr O’Neill was part of the Sinn Féin split on the issue on abstentionism which led to the creation of Provisional Sinn Féin, and again in 1986 was involved in a famous walk-out on the same issue that saw a second split in that party and the setting up of Republican Sinn Féin.
Mr O’Neill is considered one of the main people involved in that famous decision after he walked out of the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis arm-in-arm with Ruairi O Bradaigh and Daithi O Conaill.
Mr O’Neill was a former treasurer of Republican Sinn Féin and remained, until his death this week, a senior figure in the party after 27 years. He was a member of Bundoran Urban District Council in Donegal until 1999.
Despite his own Fáiling health, in June of this year O’Neill spoke in Roscommon at the graveside of Ruairi O Bradaigh, the first President of Republican Sinn Féin.
In the early 1970’s his arrest by Gardai prompted protest marches in Ballyshannon, County Donegal and an attack on the town’s garda station which erupted in a riot. He was also jailed for a period as a political prisoner at Portlaoise.
A keen Gaelic footballer in his youth, he won five Donegal senior championships and was also a well-known ballad singer. His nephew, Councillor Barry O’Neill, a Donegal Fine Gael county councillor, said that his family would “miss him dearly”.
“Joe was a great person, a fantastic uncle and a great family person. Joe had strong Republican values, beliefs and represented people in public life and indeed outside of public life.”
RSF President Des Dalton described him as “a stalwart of Irish Republicanism throughout his adult life” and said he had remained an active Republican right up to recent weeks.
“On both occasions when a reformist clique attempted to hijack the Republican Movement, in 1969/70 and again in 1986, Joe O’Neill was steadfast in his fidelity to the All-Ireland Republic of 1916,” he said.
He also paid credit to his “untiring work and sacrifice” which allowed the annual RSF hunger strike commemoration in Bundoran to take place “despite numerous attempts by the 26-County State to disrupt it”.
His wake takes place at his home in East End in Bundoran from 7pm this evening, with a funeral at 12.15pm on Sunday to St Joseph’s church in the town.
The death also took place this week of popular Sinn Féin councillor Margaret McClenaghan.
A former PoW, she became a well known figure through the unionist blockade of Holy Cross Primary School in her north Belfast community.
She resigned as a councillor due to ill-health three years ago, but continued to work as a member of the National Graves Association until her death.
Paying tribute, Sinn Féin’s Caral Ni Chuilin MLA said everyone was shocked at the news of her passing.
“Margaret was a life long republican activist, former Belfast City Councillor and campaigner for the rights of women and ex-prisoners. “Even through her illness Margaret continued to be politically active after she left the council.
“A regular attendee at public meetings a campaigner for housing and facilities for the people of Ardoyne, Margaret continued to work away.
“It’s been a long battle for Margaret through the hardest of times and in the most difficult of circumstances.
“Margaret will be missed so much but she has left behind a legacy of dedication to the people of Ardoyne and republican values of equality and social justice.”
I measc laochra na nGael go raibh siad.