The TK Whitaker archives: a career of answering back

TK Whitaker, who has died at 100, said things to ministers that other public servants would not, and his hard-hitting memos often – though not always – won their respect

Key player: TK Whitaker (far right), who died on January 9th, at Dublin Airport in 1967 with Taoiseach Jack Lynch (centre) and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey (second right). Photograph: Jack McManus

Key player: TK Whitaker (far right), who died on January 9th, at Dublin Airport in 1967 with Taoiseach Jack Lynch (centre) and Minister for Finance Charles Haughey (second right). Photograph: Jack McManus


In the 1990s TK Whitaker donated 14 boxes of his personal papers to University College Dublin. Covering a span of almost 70 years, they give a good overview of his preoccupations and initiatives as a public servant. They include a host of finance memoranda, papers relating to the relationship between Ireland and the European Union, papers on Northern Ireland, numerous lectures, and files relating to his involvement with educational and cultural bodies.

Buried in the midst of all this is an undated text that was delivered to an unidentified audience, most likely sometime in the 1980s, under the title A New Social Order. His comments on that occasion were characterised by a typical self-effacement: “I make no pretence of having a blueprint for a new social order. All I can do, after inadequate reflection and with limited understanding, is to review some weaknesses in the management of our affairs at present and, not being one who sees any merit in a destructive revolution, to offer some tentative suggestions for reform.”

There are a lot of clues in these modest, succinct remarks as to the essence of Whitaker, who died on January 9th, aged 100. He had no desire to trumpet his credentials or to be seen as radical, but also apparent was his willingness to highlight what he regarded as the weaknesses in public policymaking and to make concrete suggestions for reform. This he spent decades doing, across a variety of areas. What his comments on that occasion belied, however, was the extent to which, for all his tactfulness, he was also often audacious and imaginative.

Born in Rostrevor, Co Down, in 1916 and educated in Co Louth by the Christian Brothers after his family moved over the new Border when he was a child, it was clear from an early stage in his Civil Service career, which began in 1934, that he was exceptionally talented, having excelled in his entrance exams.

On the Department of Finance: ‘It stifles initiative’

But he was 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 querying whether it was acceptable to have an unbalanced budget.

Whitaker titled his 1956 paper delivered to that society Capital Formation, Saving and Economic Progress. It called for financial assistance to be aimed at “the development of productive capacity” and suggested the problem of emigration could be tackled through “competitive efficiency in production” rather than through demand-led stimulus.

With Paddy Lynch, Tom Barrington and other younger civil servants Whitaker pushed for a more rounded definition of economics to stress that “borrowing was not a sin, if it contributed to permanent national improvement”.

His friendship with Charles Carter, who held the chair of applied economics at Queen’s University Belfast, generated another important intellectual collaboration; Carter was even more explicit than Whitaker in arguing for inward investment and an export-led strategy.

Translating theory into practice in the 1950s Civil Service, however, was a tall order. Whitaker had addressed a discussion group of senior civil servants in 1953 on “the finance attitude” and challenged the Department of Finance’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 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 was crucial, as were his hard-hitting memos, some of which were, in the words of his biographer Anne Chambers, bordering on insubordination.

His appointment as secretary to the Department of Finance, in 1956, was no foregone conclusion; he was appointed ahead of Sarsfield Hogan, who had more seniority.

Whitaker, however, was also able to say things to his ministers that others would not, which earned him more respect. In relation to the fiscal crisis in 1956 he wrote boldly to the minister for finance, Gerard Sweetman, “You are the only person in cabinet who understands this problem, or is capable of understanding this problem.”

Whitaker, though exceptional, should not be seen in isolation. The economic historian Graham Brownlow has argued that his skill was his ability to manage, co-ordinate and synthesise “a range of opinions together in a way that would be politically palatable as well as economically realistic”.

He was part of a group who have been classed as developmentalists by the political scientist Tom Garvin. Younger economists such as Garret FitzGerald were also using the pages of The Irish Times to advocate trade liberalisation and urging policymakers to learn from the experiences of the newly formed European Economic Community.

As Whitaker put it himself, “a number of us felt that things were going so badly wrong . . . We were a young generation, a new generation of Irish well-trained, well-educated people, and we were at the heart of things in the public service, and there was a certain responsibility on us to do anything we could to pull ourselves out of the rut we were in . . . All my collaborators worked extremely hard with no hope of reward during the period we were working on Economic Development”, as he titled his key paper.

In May 1957, in correspondence with his assistant secretaries, he insisted it was necessary and desirable “that this department should do some independent thinking”, the clear articulation of a desire to see his department take the initiative in planning.

On the Irish people: ‘Falling into a mood of despondency’

Later that year he prepared a memorandum, “Has Ireland a future?”, in which he listed 21 proposals for change and alluded to the psychological importance of a new initiative: “The Irish people are falling into a mood of despondency. After 35 years of native government can it be, they are asking, that economic independence achieved with such sacrifice must wither away?”

Whitaker framed economic aspirations in human rather than technocratic terms. He also had to navigate considerable bureaucracy and interdepartmental rivalry when compiling Economic Development. This was a blueprint for the reorientation of the Irish economy away from failed protectionism and high degrees of State economic control.

Instead there would be increased emphasis on foreign investment, industrial development, exports and a shift in public expenditure from “social” to “productive” investment, with a growth target of 2 per cent a year for five years. It became the basis for the White Paper published in November 1958: Programme for Economic Expansion.

In introducing the report Whitaker essentially admonished the political establishment: “The greatest fault lies in pursuing a policy after it has proved to be unsuitable or ineffective.”

The implementation of the plan led to a significant increase in external trade – the value of Irish exports rose by 35 per cent between mid-1959 and mid-1960 alone – and reductions in unemployment and emigration.

Some elements of reform, such as an export-profits tax-relief scheme, predated Whitaker’s plan, and international economic buoyancy was crucial. But this was not just about economics; setting targets and doing something new were also, as the historian Joe Lee has noted, “part of the psychological campaign waged by the government”.

In more recent years the programme has been characterised as more conservative than was often claimed, but there is an element of reading backwards in that analysis; in looking at it through the lens of the 1950s it can be fairly asserted that it was a daring and ambitious initiative.

Whitaker was also central in establishing contacts with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and in the establishment of domestic independent research bodies such as the Economic Research Institute (subsequently the ESRI), in 1960, and the negotiations that led to the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965.

His skill was widely recognised, at home and abroad, as was his lack of arrogance. The journalist and academic John Horgan has recorded that in 1963 a British delegation preparing for trade talks with its Irish counterparts was informed in a memorandum that he was “brilliantly able, but with a quiet and unassuming but pleasant manner”.

On Europe: ‘Nobody so loves us . . .’

Whitaker played a key role in attempting to convince the EEC of Ireland’s credentials for membership in the early 1960s and toured the capitals of the member countries to make the case for Ireland’s joining. He told Taoiseach Seán Lemass in a memorandum that “it would be economic disaster for us to be outside the community if Britain is in it”.

He was also realistic about the limits of Irish influence and international standing: “Nobody so loves us as to want us in the EEC on our own terms.”

On the delicate issue of whether Ireland would have to join North Atlantic Treaty Organization in order to become an EEC member he disputed the idea that there was any incompatibility between Nato membership and the State’s opposition to Irish partition: “To others it may seem we are treating a narrow national issue as being more important than unity and co-operation in the defence of western civilisation.”

He advocated a wait-and-see approach on Nato membership but was also adamant that the economic and political issues of EEC membership were interconnected, and the defence and political requirements that would ultimately come with membership could not be ignored – a stance also adopted publicly by Lemass.

What was also significant here was that it was the Department of Finance, rather than the department of external affairs, that was making the running on the issue of EEC membership.

Because of Charles de Gaulle’s veto, as French president, of the United Kingdom’s application to join, Irish membership did not become a reality until the following decade, but much had been learned at this stage, and the groundwork proved valuable.

On politicians: Haughey was ‘not true-blooded’

Whitaker was also persistently preoccupied with ministerial overspending and horrified at Donogh O’Malley’s announcement in 1966 of free education, which he believed was a good idea but not processed through proper channels.

Whitaker had his preferences when it came to politicians. He worked well with Lemass because the latter “loved taking decisions”. After Jack Lynch succeeded Lemass, in 1966, Whitaker found that Lynch’s nature “induced loyalty and affection”.

This was also based on a close personal friendship, but his loyalty to Lynch was also blind, and his assertion that during the Arms Trial period of 1970 Lynch took “decisive action” is open to debate; it could legitimately be asserted that, in allowing Fianna Fáil to become so engulfed in controversy, Lynch was not decisive enough.

In contrast Whitaker had a tense relationship with Charles Haughey, who, as minister for finance from 1966, often told Whitaker that he would study his memoranda carefully, but that would be end of the engagement.

As Anne Chambers has recorded, Whitaker believed that Haughey was “not really true-blooded in the sense of an Irish republican” and that although “you had to admire his tenacity and ruthlessness . . . that did not mean you supported it”.

Whitaker’s move to governorship of the Central Bank of Ireland, in 1969 – he nobly refused the salary offered and insisted on a reduction – brought many conflicts with governments over public expenditure, taxation and borrowing, as the role assigned to the bank was to be, in his words, “cautious, . . . to be the warning light” and to say “unpalatable things”.

This also involved him warning against a wealth tax in the early 1970s, “regardless of the principle of introducing such a tax”, because it would lead to an outflow of capital. He experienced many frustrations as governor, particularly when George Colley’s budget of 1972 ran a current-account deficit that 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.”

One of the most consistent themes of his career was an essential conservatism: caution about the use of budget deficits in managing the economy and “balance of payments equilibria”.

He sent highly confidential and often urgent letters to government, which were clearly expressed and could be summed up simply: stop spending money you do not have.

On overspending: ‘I am appalled . . .’

Whitaker served as governor of the Central Bank until 1976, and saw much to criticise. In September 1974 he wrote a strongly worded letter to the minister for finance, Richie Ryan, about the state of the national finances. His words would resonate through subsequent decades: “I had been hoping for some good result to the efforts you have been making over recent months to pull back public expenditure from its present disaster course but I am appalled by the information given in confidence to me by Mr Murray.” (Charles Henry Murray was then secretary to the department.)

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” – he regarded Fianna Fáil’s 1977 general-election manifesto a “crowning folly” – but he used the publicity caused by his stepping down to hammer home his message, a tactic he used throughout his career.

Whitaker was a firm believer in a strong approach to law and order, and he suggested that “similar firmness was needed on the economic side”. He was vocal on this and much else when in the Seanad, for two terms from 1977, after his appointment by Lynch. 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 Whitaker’s 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 bound and gagged her and told her that Whitaker should shut up about strikers.

In 1993 he suggested that Margaret Thatcher’s “most creditable and enduring achievement was to re-establish the supremacy of government and parliament over sectional interests”, but the societal costs of Thatcher’s approach sat uneasily alongside his frequent assertions about the need not to lose sight of the human consequences of policy formulation.

On the North: ‘Emotion is dangerous’

Whitaker’s legacy on the issue of Northern Ireland is also weighty. In the fervid atmosphere generated by the Troubles he warned that “emotion is a dangerous counsellor”. He was friendly with Terence O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s prime minister from 1963 to 1969, and encouraged and attended the historic meeting between O’Neill and Lemass in 1965 at Stormont.

He desired to see articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, containing the territorial claim over Northern Ireland, scrapped, and issued many reminders of the gulf between the rhetoric of Irish unity versus the economic reality: Britain by 1970 was subsidising Northern Ireland to the tune of £100 million a year.

In 1969 he took control of Lynch’s northern policy, wrote all his major speeches on the subject and proposed an all-Ireland federal authority. He insisted on the need “of seeking unity in Ireland by agreement between Irishmen” – there was simply “no valid alternative” as far as he was concerned – and emphatically rejected force being used to undo partition, as it would exacerbate rather than resolve differences.

But he also believed it was futile to insist that Britain alone could solve the partition problem. He told Haughey that it was imperative not to inflame the situation and to avoid giving succour to hard-line republicans.

He urgently reminded Lynch in 1969 about the dangers of exploiting the outbreak of the Troubles, as some of Lynch’s colleagues seemed to desire, reminding him of the need to reassure northern Protestants, and when Lynch gave a speech in Tralee in September 1969 affirming the commitment of the government “to seek the reunification of the country by peaceful means” through agreement, and as a long-term project, this was the work of Whitaker.

His contribution to 1970s power-sharing 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.”

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” as “emotional men of the people clergy can usurp political leadership”.

As recorded by Anne Chambers, he later admitted privately in 1994 that he squirmed at the eulogising of Gerry Adams while “decent democrats” were expected to wait patiently for the IRA to decide if its ceasefire was permanent.

On Irish: ‘Natural in a bilingual society’

Whitaker’s retirement from public life was really no such thing; he chaired Bord na Gaeilge and the Oireachtas Constitution Review Group of 1995, produced an enlightened report on prisons, served as chancellor of the National University of Ireland and as president of the Royal Irish Academy, mediated in pay disputes, and even found time to chair a task force on sea trout.

He also took on commercial directorships, at Bank of Ireland and Guinness, was passionate about music and retained a devotion to the speaking and promotion of Irish throughout his life; his desire was to see Irish spoken “as a natural choice in a bilingual society”.

Whitaker’s career was 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.

There is no need to canonise him; he was also affected by the prejudices of his era, and it was ironic that he criticised what he regarded as the increased politicisation of the Civil Service in recent years, given that, in so many ways, he was the most political of civil servants and achieved renown because of that.

He was also too quick to label too many “extremists”, and the emphasis on foreign investment and free trade that he is associated with in the long term created hierarchies and priorities that did not always serve sufficient public and social purpose.

The engineering of economic prosperity after decades of stagnation was not only about the machinations of Civil Service and political elites; it also involved workers, entrepreneurs and businesses. But while Whitaker did not have all the answers or solutions, he had a lot more than most, and so many people, in different ways, benefited from that.

He was able to realise at an early stage in his career that reliance on tradition and, in his own words, “high sounding cliches” would neither serve the State’s maturation nor challenge the failed policies that resulted in stagnation, emigration and, in relation to Northern Ireland, irredentism, and he had an exceptional ability to see around corners and to manage and co-ordinate policy.

He used his talent, hard work, imagination, longevity, persistence and patriotism to great effect, and in doing so he became a public servant of unparalleled status.

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