Monday 17 December 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.

Now 53 years later, Ireland is once again faced with economic uncertainty - this time by virtue of the UK's decision to exit the EU. While the economic scenario vis-a-vis Ireland and the UK may have altered in the intervening years, the two countries still retain a close interdependence in the areas of trade and travel, further complicated by the political developments that have occurred in relation to the border and Northern Ireland.

While to date, Europe has made reassuring promises, as the real hard-bargaining between the UK and the EU begins, Ireland's priorities (tiny in the face of what is at stake) risk being squeezed as the pressure to do a deal intensifies. Our treatment at the hands of our European 'partners' during the recent financial debacle should be sufficient warning to the Irish Government of the need to ensure our own destiny and plan a more independent course of action.

Perhaps, like Whitaker did in 1965, we should again seek some form of a bilateral Anglo Irish arrangement (even on an interim basis) in the areas of trade and travel which would also ease, even eliminate, the conundrum posed by our shared border with Northern Ireland and the obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. It is perhaps the least our EU partners owe us if only for taking the rap and bailing out their avaricious banks and bondholders in the more recent past. When TK Whitaker was appointed Governor of the Central Bank in 1969, from the start he set out to ensure the autonomy of the Bank vis-a-vis both the Government and the commercial banking system. In 1970, for example, he resisted efforts by the then Minister for Finance to obtain statutory control over the exercise of credit policy, a move which, as Whitaker insisted: "I could not regard as being in the national interest."

LONDON CALLING: Whitaker and then Taoiseach Jack Lynch leave for talks with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson
LONDON CALLING: Whitaker and then Taoiseach Jack Lynch leave for talks with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson

Guided by the provision of the 1942 Central Bank Act, "that what pertains to the control of credit in the economy, the constant and predominant aim of the Bank should be the welfare of the people as a whole", against a difficult economic background in the 1970s under his governorship the Bank enforced strict credit constraints on the commercial banks, restricting credit to productive purposes, with penalties for increases in lending to the over-heating property sector, stemmed the tide of external capital inflows and resisted numerous Government attempts to fund budgetary concessions for non-productive purposes from the coffers of the Central Bank.

While immense changes have since revolutionised the banking sector and while in more recent years the Irish Central Bank's authority and powers have been gradually assumed by the European Central Bank, it is impossible to imagine that had he been Governor during the Celtic Tiger debacle, Whitaker would have allowed the tripling of credit to the building industry, the sanctioning of loans up to and beyond the 100pc, or have agreed to the disastrous decision to separate the banking supervisory and regulatory functions from the Central Bank.

And, as a member of the board of governors of the ECB, he would undoubtedly have proved a far more determined opponent to the ECB's policy of light-touch regulation leading as it did to Ireland's financial collapse.

More lately it is reassuring to see the Central Bank reassert its independence and authority nationally vis-a-vis both the Government and the commercial banking sector, especially in relation to the tracker mortgage scandal and mortgage restrictions, developments that would undoubtedly have met with the approval of its former governor.

In 1995 TK Whitaker was appointed chairman of the Constitution Review Group. The ensuring report (over 700 pages long and completed within the stipulated 12-month timetable) was influenced by Whitaker's personally held principle of "if it ain't broke don't fix it" which resulted in very few recommendations to change the 1937 Constitution.

On social issues, such as abortion, it was his stated belief that these were already in the power of the Oireachtas and were best addressed in the more effective and democratic (and less expensive) process of legislation rather than by referendum. The Report, comprehensive and incisive, unfortunately suffered the fate of having its recommendations put on the long finger. In view, however, of the current debate on the removal of the Eighth Amendment, its proposals and Whitaker's personal observations on this issue seem once again relevant.

Like today, housing and homelessness were also part of the social landscape of TK Whitaker's lifetime. In his youth, as an active member of St Vincent de Paul, his experiences of Dublin tenements and of the destitute on the capital's streets, as he told me, "was an eye-opener" and later influenced his economic thinking and the policies he brought to bear. But back in the 1930s and 1940s - despite the meagre funding then available - local government agencies embarked on the construction of numerous public housing developments across the city from Marino to Crumlin, where Whitaker's own family lived for a number of years following their move from Drogheda.

The contrast to today's dependence on private development to solve and provide for what is a national crisis cannot be more manifest.

Today, in a world where democratically elected governments and the people they represent appear as mere pawns, driven and controlled by financial markets, rating agencies, bondholders and vulture funds, where financial markets appear to have shed any sense of societal responsibility or accountability, that has resulted in some 90pc of world wealth resting in the hands of 10pc of the population, the simple but profound philosophy propounded by TK Whitaker might well provide the answer to many social problems and inequalities.

"There are values, moral and intellectual, which are higher than just mere economics. But it makes for a happier and more contented society if everybody has some basic share in wealth and well-being."

Anne Chambers is author of TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot (Doubleday Ireland)

Sunday Independent

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