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Obituary: Alan Gillis, ex-MEP and IFA leader was awarded France’s highest honour for helping rural communities


Alan Gillis took a principled stand against the imposition of rates on farming land in the 1960s and was incarcerated in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison as a result

Alan Gillis took a principled stand against the imposition of rates on farming land in the 1960s and was incarcerated in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison as a result

Alan Gillis took a principled stand against the imposition of rates on farming land in the 1960s and was incarcerated in Dublin’s Mountjoy prison as a result

Alan Gillis, the former Fine Gael MEP who served previously as president of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA), has died at the age of 85. He was born on September 22, 1936 to George and Vera (nee McLeod) and he and his two siblings were brought up in the Rathfarnham-Templeogue area of Dublin where WT Cosgrave, former head of the Irish Free State, lived close by with his family, although young Alan had no idea of the importance of his older neighbour.

Alan went to the High School in Dublin at secondary level and later served an apprenticeship with Faulkners Engineers in the Dublin docks. He also attended what used to be called the College of Technology in Bolton Street, but is now part of Technology University Dublin, as part of his training. He qualified in due course as a fitter/turner rebuilding engines on ships and lorries.

Farming was his true destiny, however. He and his father used to sow corn on a contract basis, using tractors. They jointly bought a 60-acre farm in Kill, Co Kildare, at the start of the 1960s. As his son Nigel put it in a tribute at the funeral: “Dad always described himself as an engineer by profession and a farmer by choice.”

Alan gave up his job with Faulkners to devote himself to dairy farming, which he saw as the most reliable source of a regular agricultural income. The farm at Kill was later sold and he bought a property of about 200 acres in the 1970s at Ballyhook House, Grangecon, Co Wicklow, close to Baltinglass and the border with Co Kildare.

He became active in what was then called the National Farmers’ Association (NFA), which was strongly opposed to the payment of rates on agricultural land and had begun a campaign of non-payment. In October 1966, a delegation went to the Department of Agriculture offices in Dublin to demand a meeting on the issue with Charles J Haughey, who was then agriculture minister. When told CJH was unavailable, they staged a sit-down protest on the steps.

The first of two major protests followed, with about 12,000 farmers staging sit-downs and machinery blockades at 120 venues. Around 80 farmers were imprisoned for a time, including Alan Gillis, who was incarcerated in Mountjoy. The matter was finally resolved in January 1984 when the Supreme Court upheld a High Court ruling that rates on agricultural land were unconstitutional.

The NFA became the Irish Farmers Association in 1971, and Nigel Gillis describes it as his father’s “second family”. He served on committees and travelled the country, becoming IFA president from 1990 to 1994.

Years after the dispute with Haughey, Gillis was part of an Irish trade mission to Tripoli in 1983, led by the former agriculture minister who was leader of the opposition at this stage. Haughey met the all-powerful ruler at the time, Muammar Gaddafi, and agreements were reached that resulted in Libya became Ireland’s single-biggest market for live cattle exports.

Gillis joined Fine Gael in 1994 and, a month later at a convention attended by more than 1,000 people in Newbridge, Co Kildare, was selected to run for the party in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. Since the Leinster constituency had gone from a three-seater to a four-seater, it was decided to field three candidates. The other two were sitting MEP and former justice minister Patrick Cooney and former TD Monica Barnes.

Recent recruits to a party who quickly become election candidates are sometimes called “parachutists”, but the only reference to this was made by Wicklow constituency chairman Barry Dearing, who quipped in his speech proposing Gillis that he had contacted the Army beforehand and was told there was “no sign of the Parachute Regiment in Leinster”.

The following weekend, Cooney caused shock waves when he said in a statement that he would not be running in the election, as he believed three candidates would fragment the vote for Fine Gael. He said the party’s national executive had decided to run two candidates in Leinster, but this had been changed at the convention.

It was an exciting time in Europe. There had been dramatic developments since the previous election in 1989, including the collapse of communism, the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. There were 12 EU member states at that stage, compared with today’s 27, with many of the new recruits coming from the former communist bloc.

When the election took place, Gillis came second on the first count with 16.3pc of the vote compared with 17.7pc for Fianna Fáil’s Liam Hyland. He was declared elected after the seventh count, with Fianna Fáil taking two of the other seats and Green Party candidate Nuala Ahern winning the fourth. Monica Barnes ran for the Dáil three years later and won back the Fine Gael seat in Dún Laoghaire that she had lost in the 1992 general election. Gillis became a member of the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development in the European Parliament. Described in an Irish newspaper as the “hardest-working” of the MEPs, he was very proud to receive the Legion d’honneur at the French embassy in Dublin later for his work in helping the rural communities of Europe.

In the next European election in 1999, Fine Gael ran only two candidates, himself and former Wexford TD and minister of state Avril Doyle, who topped the poll and was easily elected, whereas Gillis lost out to Nuala Ahern of the Greens for the fourth seat.

He was one of two FG candidates who ran for the Dáil in Kildare South in the 2007 general election, but the party failed to win any seats in the constituency on that occasion. Gillis was invited to join the board of Tallaght Hospital and became chairperson three years later, serving 10 years in all.

Alan Leslie Gillis died on May 6 at Craddock House Nursing Home, Naas, Co Kildare. Predeceased by his wife Irene (nee Harris) and son Stephen, he is survived by his family, Nigel, Hazel, Barry and Anna, sons-in-law Leonard and Stuart, daughters-in-law Catherine and Wendy, sister-in-law Beryl, grandchildren, great-grandchild, niece, nephews, extended family, relatives and friends.

Following repose at Halligan’s Funeral Home in Rathvilly, a Church of Ireland funeral service took place last Monday in St Mary’s Church, Baltinglass, followed by interment in St John Baptist Churchyard, Stratford-on-Slaney. The service was made accessible online at

In a tribute on his website,, the former taoiseach and Fine Gael leader described Alan Gillis as “an outstandingly effective president of the Irish Farmers Association”, adding that as a Member of the European Parliament “he was able to put his professional knowledge to good effect on behalf of the EU and Ireland”.

Fine Gael colleague Avril Doyle described Alan Gillis as “a gentleman to deal with who always carried out his many roles with integrity and enthusiasm”.

In a message of condolence to the family, Wexford Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe said: “I have some great memories of my early years in Fine Gael canvassing with your Dad and I learned a huge amount from him for my future years as a TD.”

IFA president Tim Cullinan described him as a passionate and progressive voice for Irish farming and recalled that, when certain trade deals posed a serious threat to Irish agriculture, “Alan Gillis led a strong campaign to safeguard farm incomes”.

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