Sunday 23 September 2018

TK Whitaker: a man ahead of his time

We can learn much from the most influential public servant in the history of the State, writes Anne Chambers

INFLUENTIAL: TK Whitaker, who died last year aged 100, was a man of great vision and integrity
INFLUENTIAL: TK Whitaker, who died last year aged 100, was a man of great vision and integrity

The first anniversary of the death of Ireland's 'Man of the 20th-century' occurs this month. Since his death on January 9 last, much has transpired in areas that in the past benefited from Thomas Kenneth Whitaker's years of service to the State and to the Irish people - such as Brexit, the role of the Central Bank of Ireland, the proposed repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and the housing crises.

During the 1960s, TK Whitaker spearheaded Ireland's convoluted path towards membership of what was then the European Economic Market (EEC). As Secretary of the Department of Finance he led many delegations to European capitals seeking support for Ireland's admittance to the then exclusive club of six nations. In January 1962, with Taoiseach Sean Lemass, he attended an EEC Council meeting in Brussels where Ireland's case was coolly received. The implacable Charles de Gaulle, whose vision of Europe "regrouper les pays qui touchant aux Alpes, au Rhin et aux Pyrenees", in a private meeting intimated to Whitaker that Ireland's economic and financial destiny lay not with Europe but with the United Kingdom.

This rebuff to Ireland's initial attempts to join the European Economic Community, now the European Union (the word 'community' having since been supplanted) and its implications for the Irish economy was offset in 1965 by a bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom. Negotiated and managed by Ken Whitaker and his team of civil servants, over a six-month period of hard-bargaining, the first Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement became the lifeline for Irish exports, particularly agricultural exports, during the uncertain years prior to membership of the EEC in 1973.

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