Mark Killilea obituary: Understated but effective politician

Killilea reached the height of his career as an MEP, playing a key role in Cap reforms

 Mark Killilea

Mark Killilea


Mark Killilea, former Connacht-Ulster member of the European Parliament (MEP), Fianna Fáil senator, TD and Galway county councillor died at his home, Caherhugh House, Belclare, Co Galway, on New Year’s Eve.

Killilea, a consummate and charismatic politician, was popular and well respected across all political parties. He was born into a deeply political family; his father, also Mark Killilea, was a founding member of Fianna Fáil and TD for North Galway from 1927 to 1961. His son, Donagh, is now a Fianna Fáil councillor in Galway.

Former EU commissioner Ray MacSharry, whom Killilea succeeded as an MEP in 1987, said his long-time friend was a man who got on with everyone. “Markeen was friendly, humble, sharp, alert and confident. He was always a family man, a community man, a sportsman and a great public servant,” said MacSharry.

As a farmer, beet producer, agricultural contractor, auctioneer and politician, Killilea once said he represented ordinary people who “eat their dinner in the middle of the day”. He was a huge supporter of Corofin GAA, loved horse racing and spent hours playing golf and cards while on holidays in Ballyconneely, Co Galway.

His daughter Medbh said her father grew up in a house of politics, farming and food, and fell in love with all three of them. “He told us how to live life with great common sense, a positive attitude and a twist of humour . . . He was devoted to his 11 grandchildren.”

Mark and his wife, Anne – who was an active canvasser during election time – would have celebrated 53 years of marriage this month.

First attempt

At that time, Killilea was part of the new intake into a deeply divided Fianna Fáil. And along with other newly elected TDs, he spent many late nights debating strategies in the Coffee Dock in Jurys Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Within Fianna Fáil, Killilea is perhaps best remembered as being one of the so-called gang of five (along with Jackie Fahey, Tom McEllistrim, Seán Doherty and Albert Reynolds) that lobbied the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party to support Charles Haughey’s leadership bid in 1979. The group was determined that Jack Lynch would not be succeeded by George Colley as party leader, and subsequently Charles Haughey won the leadership contest by 44 votes to 38.

Killilea was rewarded for his loyalty with the position of minister of state – with Reynolds as minister – at the department of posts and telegraphs in Charles Haughey’s 1981 government. While there, he is credited with modernising Ireland’s communications network, which was renowned for long delays in having phone lines installed.

With constituency boundary changes, Killilea switched to the Galway West constituency in 1981 but he lost his Dáil seat at the February 1982 general election to fellow Fianna Fáil TD Frank Fahey. He failed to regain the seat from Fahey in the November 1982 elections and lost again to Máire Geoghegan- Quinn in February 1987. During these years he was elected to the Seanad, where he served until his appointment as successor to Ray MacSharry as MEP for Connacht-Ulster in 1987 when MacSharry returned to the Dáil as minister for finance.

Career apex Killilea reached the height of his political career as an MEP. He played a key role in reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy, negotiating deals that would give small farmers larger payments.

He also secured EU funding for regional technical colleges at a time when EU third-level funding was going principally to universities.

Munster MEP Brian Crowley, who served with Killilea in the European Parliament, said he was able to articulate that improvement of the human condition in the west of Ireland also meant improvements in the rest of Europe because people had a lot more in common than the geographical borders dividing them. Killilea struck up alliances easily, and while in the European Parliament, he counted the late Ian Paisley among his friends. He was also involved in getting Turks and Greeks to talk to each other in the dispute over Cyprus in the 1980s.

He was re-elected as an MEP in the 1989 and 1994 European Parliament elections. And in 1996 he was elected as quaestor by his fellow MEPs, which gave him responsibilities for the working conditions of MEPs. He retired from politics at the 1999 European elections.

Mark Killilea is survived by his wife, Anne; his children, Éidín, Niamh, Deirbrin, Niall, Donagh, Medbh and Eimhín; and sisters Bid and Vera. He was predeceased by his son, also Mark, who died in a road crash in 2009.