Tuesday 22 January 2019

Whitaker's heart was forever at one with Ireland and its people

TK Whitaker, who died on Monday Photo: Tom Burke
TK Whitaker, who died on Monday Photo: Tom Burke

Gerard O'Regan

What I remember most about that night I had dinner with TK Whitaker was the soft spoken voice - replete with the calm authority of somebody who had lived a long, long life, and who had achieved much. His sprightly longevity was almost as much a source of fascination as the many lauded achievements that made him the most famous civil servant in the history of the State.

Much comment has been made in recent days on his undoubted intelligence - but Mr Whitaker's singular strength was perception, the never-to-be-underestimated capacity to see around corners. His genius on this front meant he could push the boundaries of what a public servant could and should do when it came to influencing his political masters. He nudged them forward when he felt a particular course of action should be taken, and he was sometimes able to hold them back, if convinced they were overstepping the mark. On this front, he enjoyed remarkable success with two Fianna Fáil taoisigh with whom he was personally close - Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch. However, his relationship with Charles Haughey never bonded in the same way.

During our conversations, he recalled his childhood and younger days; perhaps if the family had been better off he might have pursued a medical career. Instead, he resorted to what was the great fall-back at the time for a bright young school leaver of modest means and with a top-class Leaving Cert in their pocket. He became a civil servant. His dizzying rise from the bottom to the top of the Department of Finance was, of itself, a remarkable achievement.

But during those years of the late 1950s, the Republic of Ireland had become an economic wasteland, blighted most of all by raging emigration. In our conversation, he recalled how some British politicians were convinced that after we achieved our independence in 1922, we simply would not be able to pay our way in the world. The argument was the country would go bankrupt, or that we would be so hard-pressed financially, we would plead to join the Commonwealth.

That nightmare prospect of possible financial disaster, perhaps understandably, seemed to haunt our Department of Finance for decades. A fear of borrowing, and the need to balance the nation's books, dwarfed all other considerations. Finance departments are of course by nature fiscally conservative, and in a sense there is a responsibility on them to remain so. But frugality on its own is not a recipe for real progress in any sphere of life.

Mr Whitaker recalled the cloak of economic misery which enveloped Ireland during that lost decade of the 1950s. It was all the harder to accept because other European countries - fuelled by the post-World War II Marshall Plan - saw living standards steadily rise thanks to the power of the American dollar.

The Irish population fell below three million, and the very lifeblood of countless communities was drained by wave after wave of emigration. Old black-and-white newsreels remain testament to the misery of sundered families, as the human tide deserting their own country in search of work seemed unstoppable. We were in danger of losing our independence, Mr Whitaker later wrote.

However, it can be argued that even if such a forceful civil servant had not been on the scene, change of some kind would have had to come anyway. The situation was so desperate, something had to be done. In any case, the biggest break with the past was the departure of Éamon de Valera as taoiseach and his replacement by Seán Lemass, who had little time for Dev's dream of self-sufficient rusticity.

A number of factors were converging which were bound to provoke new thinking, not least the unbridled optimism, both economic and otherwise, which swept the western world in the 1960s. Also during that decade, we had Donagh O'Malley's solo run, when he announced the introduction of free secondary education for all.

Mr Whitaker, wearing his Department of Finance hat, had reservations because the matter had not been filtered through proper channels. But once the declaration was made, unprecedented support for the scheme meant it just had to be implemented. It was this decision, more than any, which propelled Ireland towards modernity.

Meanwhile, a family background which straddled both sides of the Border provided Mr Whitaker with a particular empathy and interest in Northern Ireland. A fluent Irish speaker - and a nationalist in the best sense of the term - he provided background intellectual firepower for Mr Lemass and Mr Lynch as they both grappled with swirling winds of change north of the Border.

I can still see him on that night - despite his mature years - striding slowly but purposefully to get his hat and coat. Those who recognised the distinctive demeanour nodded his way, partly in recognition, partly with some vague sense of gratitude. But as he disappeared from view, one could almost hear the drumbeat of a heart - forever entwined with the destiny of Ireland and its people.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss