I was sorry to learn of the death last week of William (Bill) O’Neil, the former long serving Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organisation. He reigned at IMO’s headquarters on the Thames Embankment from 1990 to 2003 and was sorely missed from almost the minute he retired.
Originally trained as a civil engineer, he came to IMO from the St Lawrence Seaway Authority in Canada that he had headed for some years. Even among all the pompous “Your Excellencies” of IMO, he remained a down to earth, practical and sensible engineer.
I got to know Bill in the latter half of his time at IMO. We lunched and enjoyed a long chat at least annually during a time when I was frequently in London. I learnt of his fear of ever more rules being promulgated and remember well his earlier statement to the effect that: “We don’t need any new rules. There are more than enough rules. What we need is to ensure that the rules we do have are properly implemented”. That, pretty much, summed up one of the major constraints on IMO.
Discussing my passion for improving passenger vessel safety and the need for IMO to act, he patiently explained to me another IMO constraint in that it is a creature of its members. While it has influence, its charter largely restricts it to acting as a global secretariat for member states. As he pointed out, if I wanted IMO to change things, I first had to persuade enough of its member states to push for that change.
His advice and comments were invariably sound and well thought through. It is a pity that none of his successors have come even close to matching him. At the higher levels of global bureaucracies, such as IMO, his like is far too rarely seen.