Alan Gillis, the former Fine Gael MEP who was previously chairman of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA), has died aged 85. He was born on 22 September 1936 to George and Vera (née McLeod) and he and his two siblings were raised in the Rathfarnham-Templeogue area of Dublin where WT Cosgrave, former leader of the Irish Free State, lived close with his family, though young Alan has no idea how important his older neighbor is.
Lan went to Dublin High School at secondary level and then did an apprenticeship with Faulkners Engineers in Dublin Docklands. 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 education. He qualified in due course as a ship and truck rebuild engine fitter/turner.
Yet agriculture was his true destiny. He and his father used to sow corn on a contract basis, using tractors. They bought a 60-acre farm together in Kill, Co Kildare, in the early 1960s. As his son Nigel said 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 at Faulkners to focus on dairy farming, which he saw as the most reliable source of steady farm income. Kill’s farm was later sold and he bought a property of around 200 acres in the 1970s at Ballyhook House, Grangecon, Co Wicklow, near 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 farmland taxes and had launched a non-payment campaign. In October 1966, a delegation visited the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture in Dublin to demand a meeting on the matter with Charles J Haughey, then Minister of Agriculture. When told CJH was unavailable, they staged a sit-down protest on the steps.
The first of two major protests followed, with around 12,000 farmers staging sit-downs and machine blockades at 120 sites. About 80 farmers were jailed for a time, including Alan Gillis, who was jailed at Mountjoy. The issue was finally resolved in January 1984 when the Supreme Court upheld a High Court ruling that rates on farmland 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 traveled the country, becoming president of the IFA 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 then the leader of the opposition. Haughey met the all-powerful leader at the time, Muammar Gaddafi, and deals were struck that made Libya Ireland’s biggest export market for live cattle.
Gillis joined Fine Gael in 1994 and, a month later, at a convention attended by over 1,000 people in Newbridge, Co Kildare, was selected to stand for the party in the forthcoming Parliament elections European. With the constituency of Leinster having changed from a three-seat constituency to a four-seat, it was decided to field three candidates. The other two were incumbent MEP and former justice minister Patrick Cooney and former TD Monica Barnes.
Recent party recruits who quickly become candidates for election are sometimes referred to as ‘paratroopers’, but the only reference to this was made by Wicklow Constituency Chairman Barry Dearing, who joked in his speech that he proposed to Gillis that he had contacted the army beforehand and was told there. there was “no sign of the Parachute Regiment in Leinster”.
The following weekend, Cooney caused shockwaves when he said in a statement that he would not stand for re-election because he believed three candidates would fragment the Fine Gael vote. He said the party’s national executive had decided to field two candidates in Leinster, but that was changed at the convention.
It was an exciting time in Europe. There had been dramatic developments since the previous elections 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 point, compared to 27 today, with many new recruits coming from the former communist bloc.
When the election was held, Gillis came second at the first count with 16.3% of the vote to Fianna Fáil’s Liam Hyland’s 17.7%. He was declared elected after the seventh count, with Fianna Fáil winning 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 which 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” MEP, he was very proud to later receive the Legion of Honor at the French Embassy in Dublin for his work in favor of rural communities in Europe.
In the next European election in 1999, Fine Gael fielded just two candidates, himself and former Wexford TD and Minister of State Avril Doyle, who topped the ballot and was easily elected, while which Gillis lost to Nuala Ahern of the Greens for the fourth seat. .
He was one of two FG candidates to stand for 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 chairman 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 (née Harris) and his son Stephen, he is survived by his family, Nigel, Hazel, Barry and Anna, his sons-in-law Leonard and Stuart, his daughters-in-law Catherine and Wendy, his sister-in-Law Beryl, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, niece, nephews, extended family, relatives and friends.
After resting at Halligan’s Funeral Home in Rathvilly, a Church of Ireland funeral service took place last Monday at St Mary’s Church, Baltinglass, followed by interment at St John Baptist Cemetery, Stratford-on-Slaney . The service has been made available online at https://m.facebook.com/RevMairt/
In a tribute on his website, www.johnbruton.com, the former Taoiseach and Fine Gael leader described Alan Gillis as “a remarkably effective chairman of the Irish Farmers Association”, adding that as a member of the European Parliament “he was able to put his professional knowledge to good use on behalf of the EU and Ireland”.
Fine Gael colleague Avril Doyle described Alan Gillis as “a gentleman to deal with who always performed his many roles with integrity and enthusiasm”.
In a message of condolence to the family, Wexford Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe said: ‘I have fond memories of my early years at Fine Gael stepping out with your father and learned a lot from him for my future years in as TD. ”
IFA President Tim Cullinan described him as a passionate and progressive voice for Irish agriculture and recalled that when certain trade deals posed a serious threat to Irish agriculture, “Alan Gillis led a strong campaign to safeguard farm incomes”.