Saturday 16 December 2017

TK Whitaker - The man who made modern Ireland

Sean Farrell on the life of TK Whitaker, the most influential civil servant ever to serve the country

The 1967 meeting between Jack Lynch and Terence O'Neill at Stormont, with TK Whitaker in the background. Whitaker had played a major role in making it happen.
The 1967 meeting between Jack Lynch and Terence O'Neill at Stormont, with TK Whitaker in the background. Whitaker had played a major role in making it happen.
TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot by Anne Chambers
Author Anne Chambers with TK Whitaker

Sean Farrell

On March 21, 1957, his first day, the new Minister for Finance, James Ryan, received an outspoken and blunt analysis of the Irish economy written by his departmental secretary, TK Whitaker. No punches were pulled.

"Without a sound and progressive economy, political independence would be a crumbling façade," Whitaker wrote. Policies of protectionism were condemning "the people to a lower standard of living than the rest of Europe." Unless there were new policies, Whitaker continued, "it would be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent."

Strong words from a civil servant to his political master, but words that needed to be said in the Ireland of the 1950s with its stagnant economy and mass unemployment and emigration.

Few would dispute his right to be regarded as the greatest living Irishman. Indeed, in 2001, Ken Whitaker was voted Irishman of the 20th Century. Now 97, the modest and brilliant architect of modern Ireland is the subject of Anne Chambers' latest absorbing book.

Despite the quotes above, TK Whitaker was no Sir Humphrey. He defined his approach as giving ministers the best possible unbiased advice when policy was being considered, and, once decided on, carrying out that policy to the best of his ability, regardless of personal views.

In 1957 he was just 40 and already acknowledged as Ireland's most brilliant civil servant. His advancement through the ranks from clerical officer upwards had been meteoric, culminating in his appointment as the youngest ever Secretary of the Department of Finance. On the way he had found time to acquire a master's degree in economics from London University as well as the admiration and appreciation of his opposite numbers in other countries.

The state of Ireland's economy in 1957 was both serious and critical and heading towards becoming terminal unless a new approach was taken. Between 1949 and 1955, Ireland's GNP increased by just 10.5pc, compared to 36.5pc in the rest of Europe. In 1957, 2pc of the population - almost 60,000 people - emigrated. Yet de Valera, still clinging on at 75, was on recent record as stating that despite this terrible economic and social situation, the restoration of the Irish language was "Fianna Fáil's greatest national objective". Something clearly had to give. And it did. The strong man of the Cabinet, and heretofore leading advocate of protectionism, Tanaiste Seán Lemass, recognising how critical things were, performed a volte face and threw his weight behind Whitaker. The rest is history. Lemass became Taoiseach in 1959 by which time, Whitaker, given the green light, was proceeding with reforms.

First up, in 1958, was the seminal Economic Development document, written by Whitaker and a small dedicated team in Finance, eventually published, unusually, under Whitaker's name. The paper analysed the principal deficiencies in the economy sector by sector, and was followed soon after by a white paper, The Programme for Economic Expansion, in which the government endorsed Whitaker's ideas and proposed policies for growth up to 1963 including export-oriented expansion, the encouragement of inward investment and movement towards free trade. The modest targets were achieved, critically boosting the country's morale by showing that things could improve. Further economic programmes followed. The economy, and Ireland, were never the same again.

Chambers' book is packed with fascinating detail on the political and economic events of the years that followed as Ireland grew economically and, with Ken Whitaker's sure hand at the tiller, opened up towards Northern Ireland, to international organisations and towards the emerging EEC. He was never afraid to speak his mind and rapidly became the close confidant of both Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch.

A Northerner from Rostrevor, he developed a close personal relationship with Northern Ireland Premier Terence O'Neill in the course of a number of transatlantic voyages to attend IMF meetings. This led to the ground-breaking O'Neill-Lemass meetings in 1965, which initiated a dialogue between the two parts of Ireland and which continued under Lynch.

He also fostered the beginnings of official cross-border co-operation, some of which have now found institutional expression. He thought long and hard about how relations between the two parts of the island might be improved.

This stood him - and Jack Lynch, and Ireland - in good stead when O'Neill's reforms withered and the North began to slide towards chaos. A passionate opponent of violence, he presented a thoughtful position paper to Lynch as early as November 1968 pointing clearly to the ruinous costs of any reunification and advocating a long-term strategy of good neighbourliness. By then he was clashing with his minister, Haughey, and shortly afterwards moved to become governor of the Central Bank. The book describes him as reticent over why he left Finance aged 52, so we can only speculate.

When chaos became widespread violence, his support for Jack Lynch in facing down Haughey, Blaney et al was crucial - another reason for his country to thank him. And, for a generation, he continued to provide thoughtful and reasoned contributions to the search for peace.

The sections on Northern Ireland in the book are among the most fascinating. Yet there are chapters also on his family, including his personal bereavements, which affected him deeply, and on his love for and work on the Irish language. There are plenty of passing references to our economic debacle of recent years. There's a catch-all chapter also, entitled 'A Man for All Seasons' which is clearly one image the author has of her subject.

Ken Whitaker was born in the year of the Rising. It would be fitting if he were there to celebrate its centenary. No one deserves the Centenarian Bounty more. A book worth reading.

Sean Farrell is former Irish Ambassador


TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot

Anne Chambers

Doubleday Ireland, hdbk, 449 pages, €26.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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