Sunday 17 December 2017

The proper civil servant

TK Whitaker was a man of integrity and used his many political talents for the good of the people

A 1971 photo of TK Whitaker
A 1971 photo of TK Whitaker

Des O'Malley

TK Whitaker's career at the top level of Government ended just as my career in frontline politics started. I first sat at the Cabinet table, as chief whip to the Jack Lynch-led Fianna Fail government in July 1969. Whitaker had retired some months earlier as secretary of the Department of Finance. This was a highly unusual decision at the time, as it was customary for secretaries to remain in post until the age of 65. Finance was then the most important government department. Whitaker was still in his early 50s when he chose to retire to become governor of the Central Bank.

The governorship of the Central Bank in those days was not an exciting position, or even a terribly important one. Unlike in recent times, Irish banks were innately conservative and so didn't require much regulation; encouraging them to go against their instincts not to lend to business was as much as the Central Bank could hope to achieve. The Irish pound was still pegged to sterling, so there was no monetary policy that the Central Bank could really effect.

The Central Bank was then seen as a retirement home for competent civil servants. The decimalisation that Whitaker had to oversee was a technical challenge, but nothing that would test his immense talents. My suspicion at the time, and one that historians appear to believe, was that he had fallen out with Charles Haughey, the minister for finance from 1966. There was a good chance that Haughey would retain his job for the foreseeable future and Haughey's propensity for high spending, for skirting procedures, and for spectacular, if not fully considered, policies didn't appear to be in line with Whitaker's more cautious instincts.

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