Canny and in control: TK Whitaker – Portrait of a Patriot

Review: Whitaker’s service to Ireland is well painted but author Anne Chambers’s treatment of her subject is a bit cosy

TK Whitaker: realised at an early stage that a reliance on tradition and “high-sounding cliches” would not serve this State’s maturation. Photograph: David Sleator / The Irish Times
TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot
TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot
Author: Anne Chambers
ISBN-13: 9781781620120
Publisher: Doubleday Ireland
Guideline Price: £20

How do you write the biography of the man many regard as Ireland's greatest public servant without it being a gushing hagiography? With considerable difficulty, it would appear. There is little doubt that Ken Whitaker, now aged 97, is a remarkable man, much deserving of the title "patriot". He did not want to write this book himself and chose Chambers, a long-term friend, whose writing career he launched by publishing an article of hers decades ago in the Central Bank Bulletin. But Whitaker has lost none of his canniness; he controls the book from start to finish.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, in the sense that the interviews forming much of the content are frequently valuable and revealing and the reader gets a strong sense of Whitaker and what motivated him. But the arrangement between author and subject is too cosy; the book is replete with exclamation marks, superlatives and constantly expressed astonishment at his brilliance, and it feels too hermetic.

There is also regular intrusion of the present, interrupting the historical narrative to demonstrate the contrast between Whitaker’s priorities and more recent failures, and the author has little interest in nuance in this regard. Whitaker stands as a beacon, we are told, because he viewed his role as “a trustee for the taxpayer” in contrast to what is described as “the all-pervasive, egotistical, entitled, ‘I’m worth it’, bonus and top-up motivated mindset of modern-day Irish society”. This is a ham-fisted, ridiculous generalisation to make about “Irish society”. This sort of sledge-hammer approach, often apparent, grates, as does the sloppy editing; he is referred to as Ken and Ken Whitaker throughout, often on the same page, and some of the footnoting is insufficient by not giving enough basic information, including dates.

Admirable detail

But it is a valuable and often absorbing book nonetheless, because on some subjects Whitaker is frank and forthright (on others he is deliberately evasive or silent). Because of the admirable detail on offer overall, the book raises fundamental questions, not just about the depth of Whitaker’s contribution to the State over seven decades, but about the world he inhabited and the defining issues he faced: is economics an art or a science? What are the proper boundaries for a civil servant when it comes to advising, policy formulation and execution? What is the meaning of public service and this State’s sovereignty? Whitaker’s contribution to a reformulation of economic policy in the 1950s is well-known, but how many missed opportunities were there because of a refusal to take his advice at key stages in relation to a variety of issues?

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This book, to the author’s credit, draws on a rich archive, not just Whitaker’s personal papers but also his voluminous articles, lectures and memoranda. His output was staggering and this State is a lot better for that. For all the gushing declarations made by the author, or indeed, by me, the observation of Garret FitzGerald is probably most fitting: Whitaker “shared all the great qualities of the first generation of civil servants but with the crucial addition of imagination”. That, however, did not stop him being furious with imaginative politicians who did not follow “proper” procedures.

It was clear from an early stage in his Civil Service career from 1934 that he was exceptionally talented but working under considerable restraints; his description of being a “Finance Man” from 1938 was “Nothing new can be undertaken except at the expense of some other possibility. Resources are not inexhaustible. There are, however, no limits to desires.” This was an eloquent assertion of a deep conservatism, but Whitaker was keen to use a “suitably discreet forum” for elaborating on new ideas. The Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland was such a forum for teasing out the problems associated with credit creation and whether it was acceptable to have an unbalanced budget. With Paddy Lynch and other younger civil servants, he pushed for a more rounded definition of economics to stress “borrowing was not a sin, if it contributed to permanent national improvement”.

‘Inverted Micawberism’

Yet he could also write to minister for finance Seán MacEntee after a savage budget in 1952, praising “your unsparing devotion to public duty when everyone would have had you executed”. This is the same Whitaker who published an article in the public service journal

Administration

the following year challenging the department’s “inverted Micawberism, its slowness to see the merits of a case, its maddening questions, its dilatoriness, its blind devotion to precedent, the dead hand with which it stifles every initiative”. This underlines that his other assertion about civil servants – “by a very sound tradition, we are not allowed to answer back” – was only partly true; Whitaker spent much of his career answering back and his initiation of a review of the Department of Finance was crucial as were his hard-hitting memos that were, in Chambers’s words “bordering on insubordination”.

His appointment as secretary to the department in 1956 was a chance to give substance to his aspirations and to push for productive capital investment, and contacts with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Insight is provided into his poor relationship with minister for finance James Ryan and the tortuous navigation of bureaucracy and inter-departmental rivalry when compiling Economic Development, the blueprint for the reorientation of the economy away from failed protectionism.

A crucial point was that he framed economic aspirations in human not technocratic terms; he was also active in policing criticisms of the programme and worked well with Seán Lemass because the latter “loved taking decisions”. Whitaker played a key role in establishing independent research bodies and convincing the EEC of Ireland’s credentials for membership, but was also preoccupied with ministerial overspending and horrified at Donogh O’Malley’s announcement of free education in 1966, which was “a good idea” but not processed through proper channels. More elaboration on his attitude to education provision and much else would be worthwhile (we are told that his four elder children “attended the best of Dublin’s Jesuit Schools”).

Whitaker had his preferences when it came to politicians. Jack Lynch’s nature “induced loyalty and affection” but Whitaker’s loyalty to Lynch was blind, and he does not make enough acknowledgments of Lynch’s poor leadership and inability to control renegade ministers, including Haughey, with whom Whitaker had a tense relationship.

Haughey often told Whitaker he would study his memoranda carefully, but that would be the end of the engagement. Whitaker sticks the knife in here; Haughey was “not really true-blooded in the sense of an Irish republican” and while “you had to admire his tenacity and ruthlessness . . . that did not mean you supported it”, but “if it came to any sort of disagreement the people would respect my views more than his”. Does this contradict the role of the civil servant, given that Whitaker expresses disapproval of the “politicisation” of the upper echelons of the Civil Service in recent years? Where was the line and why does the author not tease out some of these issues?

We are told the reason Whitaker left the department of finance in 1969 at the age of 52 “remains a matter of speculation”; it remains thus because Whitaker has chosen not to speak about it. His move to governorship of the Central Bank (he nobly refused the salary offered and insisted on a reduction) brought many conflicts with governments over incomes and prices as the role assigned to it was to be “the warning light”, but this also involved him warning against a wealth tax “regardless of the principle of introducing such a tax” because it would lead to an outflow of capital.

Chambers does a good job in underlining his frustrations, particularly when George Colley’s budget of 1972 ran a current account deficit which Whitaker opposed: “once a large deficit had been allowed to appear the government would find it extremely hard on political grounds ever to close the gap again”.

He retained his ability to be funny, eloquent and quietly withering, writing of Richie Ryan “he cannot very well cry over spilt milk; he has licked most of it up himself”. There is also more of a hint of Whitaker’s ideological leanings in the later chapters, particularly in relation to trade union demands. In 1993 he suggested Margaret Thatcher’s “most creditable and enduring achievement was to re-establish the supremacy of government and parliament over sectional interests”, but he does not elaborate on the societal costs of that, which sits uneasily with his assertions about the need not to lose sight of the human consequences of policy formulation.

He would not serve a second term as governor as it could have been regarded as “a condonation of policies I considered to be wrong” (the 1977 general election manifesto was a “crowning folly” which makes apparent the limits of his influence on Lynch), but he used the publicity caused by his stepping down to hammer home his message, a common tactic throughout his career. He was a firm believer in a strong approach to law and order, and suggested “similar firmness was needed on the economic side”. Whitaker was vocal on this and much else when in the Senate from 1977; his was an independent, informed and stern voice (a voice Haughey did not want to hear; he refused to reappoint him for a third term). As a result of his views on what he regarded as the excessive aggression and power of trade unions, his wife Nora was attacked in her home by three masked raiders who told her Whitaker should shut up about strikers.

The chapters on his role in Northern Ireland are revealing about his friendship with Terence O’Neill, his desire to see articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution scrapped; and his reminders of the gulf between the rhetoric of Irish unity versus this economic reality: Britain by 1970 was subsidising Northern Ireland to the tune of £100 million a year. The correspondence here is fascinating as he took control of Lynch’s northern policy, wrote all his major speeches on this subject and proposed an all-Ireland federal authority. His contribution to 1970s powersharing proposals was significant and he insisted on the need to provide a forum for elected politicians in the North: “we must give them our backing or leave the field to savagery”.

Spectrum of interests

In a letter to Garret FitzGerald, he was urgently adamant during the republican hunger strikes of 1981 about the “desperate need of clear guidance from the government”. He later admitted privately in 1994, “I squirm” at the eulogising of

Gerry Adams

while “decent democrats” were expected to wait patiently for the IRA to decide if its ceasefire was permanent. There is also information on the range of his other projects; the constitutional review groups, his enlightened report on prisons, chancellorship of the NUI, mediator on pay disputes, chairman of Bord na Gaeilge and his passion for the Irish language; he even found time to chair a task force on sea trout.

This book is a testament to the importance of the real meaning of republicanism and “the common good”, a concern that suffused so much of his actions and correspondence.

Whitaker did not have all the answers or solutions, but he had a hell of a lot more than most and we have all, in different ways, benefited from that. He was able to realise at an early stage that a reliance on tradition and "high-sounding cliches" would not serve this State's maturation, and it was entirely appropriate that it was Whitaker who, in 2010, told the current Governor of the Central Bank, Patrick Honohan, "I'm counting on you to save the country from national humiliation."

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin.

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter

Diarmaid Ferriter, a contributor to The Irish Times, is professor of modern Irish history at University College Dublin. He writes a weekly opinion column