Brendan Halligan obituary: Labour politician who had life-long commitment to social justice

Committed European served as a TD, senator and MEP

Brendan Halligan in 2016, chairman and   Founder of the Institute of International and European Affairs. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Brendan Halligan in 2016, chairman and Founder of the Institute of International and European Affairs. Photograph Nick Bradshaw


Brendan Halligan
Born: July 5th, 1936
Died: August 9th, 2020

Brendan Halligan, the Dublin-born politician, economist, public servant, public affairs consultant and academic, has died following a long illness. Renowned for his innovative thinking and leadership skills, Halligan was general secretary of the Labour Party for over a decade as well as being a Labour Party TD, Senator and briefly a member of the European Parliament.

He served as chairman of both Bord na Móna (1985-1995) and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (2007-2014). A committed European, he founded and was president of the Dublin-based think tank, the Institute of European Affairs (now the Institute of International and European Affairs) in 1990. Latterly he founded and was president of the Ireland China Institute, a new independent Dublin-based think tank aimed at developing cultural links and better understanding between Ireland and China.

During his long and varied career, Halligan displayed a deep commitment to public life, social justice and the values of the European Union. Gifted with a fine intellect and gregarious personality, he was a great political organiser and enthusiastic mentor with a unique talent to bring people together. He profoundly believed that Ireland’s interests were best served at the heart of Europe, a view he continued to promote during the Brexit negotiations.

Science and engineering

Born in the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin, the eldest of three children to Patrick and Jane Halligan, Brendan lived in Rialto and was educated at St James’ Christian Brothers School. He then went to Dublin Institute of Technology (now part of TU Dublin) at Kevin St to train as a scientist. His first job was as a chemical analyst in the CIÉ depot in Inchicore where his life-long interest in science and engineering took root.

With ambitions towards further studies, Halligan and three friends formed a co-operative to fund all four of them through university. To raise funds, they travelled to work at various jobs in London.

In 1959, Halligan returned to Dublin to study economics and law at University College Dublin. Lecturers including George O’Brien, Paddy Lynch and Garrett Fitzgerald (later taoiseach) proved to be formative influences on the young Halligan.

While at UCD, he edited student magazines, Exchange, and Link, which became the magazine of the community development movement which focused on establishing credit unions throughout Ireland.

He graduated with a master’s degree in Economics from UCD in 1964 and was employed by the Irish Sugar Company under Michael Joseph Costello, the former army lieutenant general and veteran of the Irish War of Independence and Irish Civil War. That same year, he married Margie Brennan, who he had known since they were both teenagers.

The couple bought a house in Rathfarnham where their three children grew up and Brendan and Margie continued to live in throughout their married life.

In 1967, aged 31, Halligan changed career to become the political director and later general secretary of the Labour Party, under Brendan Corish. He was central to the changes in the Labour Party – whose slogan at the time was “The Seventies will be Socialist” – attracting new members, including Conor Cruise O’Brien, Justin Keating and David Thornley, to stand for elections in the 1969 and 1973 polls.

European links

He was also instrumental in bringing the Labour Party into the Socialists International and the EEE/EU Social Democratic movement. In 1969, he travelled to Portugal with a socialist international group to support the Mario Soares-led social democrats in opposition to the Caetano fascists and was deported. He developed links with leaders across Europe and beyond including French socialist politician, Francois Mitterrand and leader of the Social Democratic party in West Germany, Willy Brandt, who made a party political broadcast for the Labour Party in the 1979 European Parliament elections.

Prior to the outbreak of the Troubles, he opened up contacts with both communities and as general secretary of the Labour Party, he dissolved Labour Party branches in Northern Ireland in 1970 to assist in the formation of the SDLP.

In the early 1970s, Halligan played a central role in creating the national coalition between Fine Gael and the Labour Party which fought and won the 1973 General Election. He began his career in active politics following his appointment as senator in that 1973 coalition government. He won a seat in Dublin South-West byelection in 1976 and served as a TD there until June 1977. In 1977, he stood in the new Dublin Finglas constituency but wasn’t elected. He stood again in Dublin North-West in 1981 and 1982 but wasn’t elected.

He remained as general secretary of the Labour Party until 1980, after which he lectured in management science at the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick (now University of Limerick). In 1985, he also set up an international public affairs consultancy, Consultants in Public Affairs in Dublin. He remained a director of that business until 2014.

Gay rights

From 1983- 1984, Halligan served as a member of the European Parliament (MEP). At that time, he was one of a few politicians to publicly support gay rights and the introduction of abortion into Ireland. A member of the Irish Council of the European Movement since the 1960s, he became chairman of that organisation from 1983-1988.

The Irish experience of the Single European Act referendum in 1987 persuaded Halligan that Ireland needed a think tank on European affairs. So, he sold the concept of the Institute of European Affairs to businesspeople, politicians and academics. In 1992, with fellow Labour Party activists, he bought in trust the premises in North Great George’s St.

He later served as director and president of the IIEA and was widely regarded as a pragmatic European intellectual, writing papers and giving lectures on European and Irish politics and policies. He was also adjunct professor of European Integration at the University of Limerick.

His keen interest and experience in energy policy and renewable energy led to his appointment as chairman of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland from 2007-2014.

And right until his death, he was a director of Mainstream Renewable Energy Power, the international renewable energy company set up by Irishman Eddie O’Connor, who had been chief executive of Bord na Móna when Halligan was chairman.

He often said that he was too active to write his memoirs and too busy doing things to retire. France was a favourite destination for family holidays when his children were young as Brendan shared a love of all things French with his father Patrick. He was also a passionate GAA supporter. And he passed on his love of politics to his family – his daughter Aoife is a researcher in the library at Leinster House and his eldest grandchild, Cillian Moore, is a parliamentary assistant in the Houses of the Oireachtas.

A life-long scholar and avid reader, Halligan also had a great interest in Roman and Irish history. Already an Irish speaker, he returned to study old Irish in Trinity College Dublin in 2001 and wrote a book on early Irish law and culture, entitled Wonder, Wisdom and War (Scathan Press, 2015). He was awarded an honorary doctorate of Literature at UCD in 2010 and the prestigious French Government award, Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur in 2016.

He is survived by his wife Margie, children Gráinne, Fergal and Aoife, sister Eileen, six grandchildren, and many friends. His brother Kevin pre-deceased him in 1999.