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Wednesday 7 December 2016

Near-bankrupt Ireland close to brink in Fifties

Architect of our modern economy reveals how country's debts put our independence at risk

LYNNE KELLEHER

Published 26/12/2010 | 05:00

THE country's most famous civil servant, TK Whitaker, has revealed how an almost bankrupt Ireland was in danger of losing its independence in the late Fifties.

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And in a new documentary, he also reveals how former Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill expressed his wish to have Donegal added to the six counties.

Whitaker, voted the Greatest Living Irish Person in 2002, is seen as one of the most influential figures of 20th-Century Ireland.

In a revealing TG4 biopic, the architect of Ireland's modern economy told how he had warned the government in the late Fifties that the almost-bankrupt country would have to go back to England if urgent action wasn't taken to get out of debt.

He said: "The country was in danger of losing its independence. I felt an obligation to try and put things right. I was bold enough to write a note to the then [Finance] Minister of the day saying if we continued the way we were, it wouldn't be long before we'd have to ask England to take us back."

The 93-year-old former civil servant said baffled IMF officials who arrived in the country to speak with Taoiseach Eamon de Valera in the late Fifties about the country's finances were treated to a version of his famous 1943 speech about his ideal Ireland.

He said: "He gave them an account very much like that of the comely maidens and so on. When he came out, the American leader of the IMF delegation said, 'Your prime minister is a strange man'.

"I think de Valera understood at the end that the speech he gave was only a dream."

In the documentary, the former finance secretary in the Fifties and Sixties also reveals how French President Charles de Gaulle didn't want Ireland to join the EEC because of its close ties to Britain.

The Down-born civil servant, who was one of the closest advisers to both Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch during their time in government, tells how he was responsible for setting up the first State talks between the Republic and Northern Ireland after partition as he had developed a friendship with Northern Ireland Prime Minister Terence O'Neill.

And he said the topic of Donegal was humourously discussed between Taoiseach Seam Lemass and O'Neill during their ground-breaking lunch meeting in 1967.

He said: "Sean Lemass had a very good innings there. He was told by Terence O'Neill was what he really regretted was that the six counties were only six counties and the county he liked best of all, Donegal, was outside their scope. 'Oh', says Lemass, 'You can have Donegal if you take [Neil] Blaney with it'."

He also told how a fired-up Ian Paisley and his supporters threw snowballs at the State car he was travelling in with the then Taoiseach Jack Lynch for a similar meeting in Stormont in the late Sixties.

He said: "They were standing in the snow armed with snowballs which they threw at our car. They were not very good shots. But when we were getting out at the Prime Minister's residence you could hear Ian Paisley bellowing 'No Pope here, no Pope here' and Jack Lynch turned to me and said in his nice soft Cork accent 'Which of us does he think is the Pope?'"

Whitaker, who went on to become the Governor of the Central Bank and a senator, said he remembers cautioning Jack Lynch strongly about using armed forced during the crisis in the North in August 1969.

"People's lives were in danger and they wanted us to send them arms and to consider a military offensive into the six counties.

"I advised him not to add fuel to the fire and to stay calm and not to rush in. I thought that would be far too dangerous. That could result in all-out war."

TK Whitaker is credited with helping Sean Lemass bring Ireland out of rural isolationism and into 20th century economic boom by penning his ground-breaking economic development paper that put an end to protectionism.

TK Whitaker said his greatest ambition now is to live to be 100.

'TK Whitaker -- Seirbhiseach an Stait' will be shown on TG4 tomorrow at 8.15pm

Sunday Independent

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