Friday 13 December 2019

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.

For although Whitaker appears as a somewhat radical figure, he was actually quite a proper civil servant. He never, as far as I can tell, was publicly or privately critical of any minister or politician he worked for, even long after he had retired from the public service.

His proposals to end protectionism and open the Irish economy to trade might have been radical if they had been proposed in the 1930s, but in post-war Europe they only appeared radical when the backdrop was De Valera's Ireland. Whitaker could push some of these ideas when Fianna Fail was out of power, but these periods were never sustained. It was only when Sean Lemass took over from the aging Dev that Whitaker's ideas had a chance.

There are suggestions that Whitaker was pushed out of Finance, but I think it unlikely that he could have been, and he certainly would have had the support of Lynch if there had been any attempt to force him out.

Jack Lynch and he had grown close when Jack was minister for finance. I know they were both appalled at the decision of Donogh O'Malley to pre-empt Cabinet and its procedures in announcing free secondary education. Procedures mattered to both men.

I was indirectly in contact with Whitaker after the violence in Northern Ireland blew up. In what was highly unusual for a head of a Central Bank, Whitaker provided private advice to Lynch on the North which the latter showed me. He had set up meetings between Lynch and Terence O'Neill, the Northern Ireland premier, in 1967 and 1968.

The most significant advice was a policy document on the future of Northern Ireland. It was Whitaker who was the first senior Irish public figure to acknowledge that any solution to the Northern problem must include the principle of consent. That is, that Ireland could not simply wish to reunify in the face of significant unionist opposition.

This was anathema to some in the Fianna Fail parliamentary party at the time. Few among us thought much about Northern Ireland at the time. Unfortunately many of those that did seemed to believe that unionism was a disease that could be best treated by the holders being put down or sent back to England!

Lynch, with others such as Paddy Hillery, was instinctively conciliatory on the Northern Ireland question, but he had to withstand immense pressure from within the parliamentary party to use the emerging violence in the North as a pretext to engage militarily.

Lynch was courageous, and was always willing to stand up to the backwoodsmen in the party, but their criticism and sniping at him was unrelenting. Without the sheer intellectual force of Whitaker's arguments, I wonder whether he could have sustained his position over that period. As well as his clear intellectual ability, another feature of Whitaker's personality was his charm. He was invariably pleasant and it would be hard for him to make enemies. This made it much easier for him to bring people along to his position.

His retirement from the Central Bank brought about an extraordinarily active retirement. He sat on innumerable boards, and I suspect made significant contributions to all of them.

The breadth of his interests was quite amazing. As well as the economy and Northern Ireland, he had a deep interest in the Irish language, the position of the wild Irish salmon and penal reform.

Few, if any, public servants have made or could make such a deep and positive contribution to Ireland. But all could aspire at least to his integrity.

Des O'Malley was a TD for Limerick East from 1968 to 2002. He was a Cabinet minister in several Irish governments between 1970 and 1992. He was founding leader of the Progressive Democrats

Sunday Independent

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