TK Whitaker: truly a man for all seasons

TK Whitaker in 2008 Photo: Orla Murray/Ark

Eoghan Harris

A famous feminist slogan says the personal is always political. This also applies to Donald Trump, Arlene Foster, Martin McGuinness, and the late TK Whitaker.

Like most Marxists and socialists, I once believed that economic and social forces were primary in shaping politics.

Life has taught me otherwise. The moral - or immoral - characters of Churchill and Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin finally mattered most, for good or evil.

So the issue in the United States or Northern Ireland is not the political platform of a Trump or a McGuinness, but whether they can act with good authority by conquering their own personal demons.

By that standard, Trump gives cause for concern. In a long critique, You Are Still Crying Wolf, the brilliant American blogger Scott Alexander forensically disproves the Left's wilder claims that Trump is a fascist, a crude racist or an anti-Semite.

But while refuting demonisations, Alexander draws attention to Trump's skewed and strange personality.

Alexander writes: "I don't think people appreciate how weird this guy is. His weird way of speaking. His catchphrases like 'Haters and losers!' or 'Sad!'"

That's why psychologists believe that Trump, like many famous entertainers (including film stars), has a narcissistic personality profile.

It would be preferable if Trump, like many great leaders, had a psychopathic personality profile (which is not the same as being a psychopath) because he would still be able to act empathetically if it served his ends.

But narcissistic personality types like Trump are too self-absorbed to look at the big picture. They take political problems personally, and vice-versa.

Given we have no shortage of narcissists and psychopathic personality types in Irish politics, Arlene Foster might have been taken aback by a recent Newstalk discussion about whether Gerry Adams could bring himself to shake hands with Trump.

As First Minister, Foster forced herself to shake hands with Martin McGuinness. It could not have been easy. She was only eight when her father crawled into their farmhouse with blood pouring from his head after being shot by the IRA.

He survived, but clearly the trauma took a toll on Foster. Nothing else explains her lack of empathy in dealing with Martin McGuinness compared with her predecessors, Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.

Moving on, I don't propose to dwell on the psychology of Martin McGuinness. He is a sick man and I hope he gets well enough for me to go on giving him a hard time in the future.

Anyway, I can afford to be mellow about McGuinness having done my bit to ensure he did not end up being inaugurated as president of the Irish Republic.

McGuinness has either mastered or masked his personal tribal prejudices. Foster might find this shocking but it doesn't matter whether he is sincere or not.

Faking, in politics or in sex, can help save a marriage. But the first sentence of his resignation letter shows McGuinness has not entirely eliminated traces of his tribal past.

He wrote: "I have sought with all my energy and determination to serve all the people of the north."

Not even a capital N for 'north', never mind a pluralist nod of respect by using the correct title, Northern Ireland.

TK Whitaker was born in Northern Ireland and educated in Co Louth - close to the Border. But, like James Joyce, he was never trapped in the net of nationality.

Tributes to Whitaker have concentrated on his extraordinary economic contribution to Irish public life. What mattered more was his visionary pluralism on Northern Ireland and his personal relationship with its political vessel, Jack Lynch.

One of the most dramatic episodes was in the aftermath of Lynch's 'Stand By' speech of August 1969. Its inflammatory tone was dictated by Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney at the Cabinet table and merely led to an intensification of the riots in Derry.

Desperate for help, Lynch couldn't contact Whitaker, who was on holidays in Carna in Connemara, and got the gardai to track him down with an urgent message to call him.

The gardai found Whitaker and whisked him to a phone in the nearby barracks where he gave Lynch the verbal briefing that became the famous conciliatory Tralee speech of September 1969.

Lynch's prophetically pluralist speech contained such lines as: "The Protestants of the North need have no fear of any interference with their religious freedom or civil liberties and rights."

Whitaker followed up with a letter to Lynch that anticipates tropes we now take for granted: "There is a terrible temptation to be opportunist - to cash in on political emotionalism - at a time like this; but it should never be forgotten that a genuinely united Ireland must be based on a free union of those living in Ireland, on mutual tolerance and on belief that ultimate government authority will be equitable and unprejudiced."

He urged Lynch to avoid all appearances of "being driven before the emotional winds fanned by utterly unrepresentative and irresponsible organisations such as Sinn Fein".

Later, in 1972, Whitaker repeated his hard anti-Provo line in another letter to Lynch, asking him to make a bigger moral case against IRA atrocities.

Whitaker wrote: "Should the Government not make a strong statement against the horror of the IRA campaign in the North - one dealing exclusively with their activities, which are inhuman as well as senseless?"

He added prophetically: "They are making Irish unity impossible by alienating the British public (and political opinion) and causing the deepest bitterness amongst the people of the North. I'm afraid that the Government are thought to be ambivalent, if not indulgent."

Lynch took note and read the riot act to the Fianna Fail national executive. Today Micheal Martin still follows Lynch and Whitaker's line on IRA killings.

But Lynch and Whitaker were well able to wave the tricolour as long as it did not help the IRA. Leading up to Ireland joining the EEC, Lynch deliberately left Whitaker (who spoke fluent French) alone with Charles de Gaulle.

Whitaker made a passionate plea for French support, telling De Gaulle that EEC membership was Ireland's only exit from the imperial shadow of the evil Brits. After every dig at John Bull, De Gaulle responded with an enthusiastic "bon, bon".

Most moving of all was the reciprocal respect between Lynch and Whitaker. Such was the latter's regard, that he not only wrote Lynch's formal obituary, but also designed his tombstone.

It was made from Cork limestone and engraved with the words: "Happy is the man who finds wisdom."

Happy, too, the State with a peerless public servant like TK Whitaker to do it some service. Ar dheis De go raibh a anam uasal.