An interview with Bill O’Neil

Mar 30, 2005
Author: Mike Meehan


The ICS (the Institute of Chartered Shipbrokers) held its International Executive Meeting in Durban in March. The Institute, which is based in London, had been invited to South Africa by the South African Chapter, an invitation they accepted readily following a successful visit to Sri Lanka last year and in keeping with their desire to be recognised as an international group through travel to the several chapters that are spread around the world.

The newly elected President of the ICS is Bill O’Neil, one of the most highly regarded men in the administration of world shipping. When he was in Durban, he spoke to Mike Meehan.


members of the ICS Board including Mr Bill O’Neil (second left, back row) who visited Durban in March – picture courtesy The Mercury

O’Neil is most widely recognised for his role as Secretary General of the IMO (the International Maritime Organisation – the maritime division of the United Nations), a position he filled with enormous distinction and success; but he also enjoyed his early life in the maritime world.

Starting off as a civil engineer in Toronto, he joined the DOT in Canada and was involved in the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, a massive engineering project which enables ships of 30,000 tonnes dwt to navigate nearly 5,000 km inland to the extreme western edge of Lake Superior. O’Neil was so fascinated by the Seaway and shipping that he became Head of the Canadian Coast Guard and for a further 10 years President of the Seaway. During his term of office, he effectively privatised it with no further demand on the government for funding.

His negotiating skills and his organisational ability made him a logical choice for the position of Secretary General of the IMO. Under his capable control, he converted this body from a talk shop of 163 member governments to an effective body embracing the views of the majority of the non-governmental bodies representing ship owners and other shipping bodies’ world wide. It became the focal point for resolving matters critical to shipping and was successful in introducing legislation that has dramatically improved the quality and safety of shipping over the past 15 years.

These protocols include, STCW (standards for training and certification of watch keepers at sea), which has dramatically improved the quality of seafarers; the ISM code (the international safety management) which has made ship management both onshore and at sea much more professional; OPR (oil prevention response programs) and MARPOL which have proved so environmentally beneficial especially to countries like South Africa with its long and exposed coastline; and more recently the ISPS (international ship and ports security) which has provided more security at sea and in the ports in response to 9/11. O’Neil well remembers the valuable contribution played by Brian Watt and Bill Dernier of the Department of Transport and later SAMSA (South African Maritime Safety Authority), when representing South Africa at the IMO on these matters.

In addition he was instrumental in developing the World Maritime University with its 100 students drawn from around the world and who leave equipped with professional knowledge and skills to enhance world shipping.

Following his retirement after three and a half terms of office, O’Neil readily accepted the role of President of the International Council of the ICS, as it will allow him to pursue his passion for increased professionalism in the management of shipping.

The main function of the ICS is to provide skills to perform as brokers, agents and managers and to ‘engrain professional ethics in the shipping industry’.

After all the efforts that he has put in to improve the professionalism of shipping he is disturbed at the attempts to criminalise seafarers for innocent errors and worries about “the potential impact on inducing young people to become seafarers and the concern of existing masters and crews concerning their possible incarceration even though they had taken all possible steps to mitigate pollution.”

He still believes there is much to be done: “The shipping industry constantly complains about its poor public image and to get from under this cloud there must be a demonstrable improvement in safety and pollution prevention and not just be giving lip service to it.”

Bill O’Neil has made an incredible contribution to shipping and it seems there is much more to come from this quietly spoken but hugely effective champion of professionalism.


This is the complete interview between Bill O’Neil and Mike Meehan, of which an abbreviated version appeared in the Ports & Shipping page of The Mercury newspaper of 30 March 2005.

It is hoped to also publish the talk given by Mr O’Neil to the Executive Council Meeting of ICS in Durban on 10 March – this will appear in the LEGAL NEWS & OPINION column of Ports & Ships – watch that space.


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