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Wednesday, October 17, 2018


14 years ago when Bill O’Neil was elected as Secretary-General of the International Maritime Organization, many were speculating how difficult it would be for him to succeed CP Srivastava and stamp his own identity on the top job.

Fourteen years on, in the week that the IMO’s Assembly officially approves the appointment of  Admiral Efthimios E. Mitropoulos as O’Neil’s successor, the praise for O’Neil and the quiet but determined way that he has led IMO is resounding round the shipping industry. The IMO has issued a Special Edition of the IMO News honouring Mr O’Neil’s record 14-year tenure in the post of Secretary-General, including appreciations by INTERTANKO MD Dr Peter Swift and Intercargo Secretary-General Mr Roger Holt.

Key to his success has been his ability to take an overview without getting bogged down in detail, to see the commercial viewpoint (which is what drives the shipping industry and keeps it vital) in a regulatory environment, say a number of INTERTANKO staff who have worked closely with O’Neil over the years.

IMO has become increasingly political, which some claim was bound to happen as the new maritime nations increased their maritime knowledge and their involvement in the workings of IMO. Equally important is, of course, the fact that many traditional flag states are acting now as port states in an IMO context and that the EU states increasingly operate as a block. O’Neil has quietly worked towards bridging the gap between politics and regulation just as he has helped commercialism to co-exist with regulation.

He has held IMO together under the politicians’ fire - unilateral regulation from both the US and Europe ‑ while at the same time bringing the organisation closer to the shipping industry by making it approachable, comprehensible and credible. “O’Neil’s great achievement will be recognised to be the skilful way in which he has managed not only to argue the case for universal recognition of the role of IMO, but also to deliver the promises he has made,” writes ICS Secretary-General Chris Horrocks.

Slowing the tidal wave of new regulation and working towards ensuring that existing regulation is effective have been crucial to increasing IMO’s credibility in the eyes of the shipping industry as well as those of the politicians. Equally convincing have been the demonstration of the speed at which IMO can work when driven hard (over the ISPS Code, or over the amendments to MARPOL in the wake of the Erika). O’Neil’s steely determination has been behind both these developments, and furthermore he has allowed this vast international organisation to increase its relevance and closeness to the shipping industry by valuing and encouraging input from non-governmental organisations such as INTERTANKO.

Maintaining this unity, strength, credibility and approachability are among the challenges for his successor. Thimio Mitropoulos will no doubt also find it hard stepping into his predecessor’s shoes. But the signs are that he is looking forward to the challenge.