TK Whitaker, Ireland’s man of the century, turns 99

In the week of the Irishman of the Twentieth Century’s birthday, his biographer looks back at a hugely engaged and influential life

Architect of modern Ireland: TK Whitaker at home in Dublin in 2014, aged 97. Photograph: David Sleator

Dr TK Whitaker turned 99 this week– on Tuesday, December 8th – and the accolade of Irishman of the Twentieth Century, which the public voted to name him in 2001, seems, in the light of recent revelations about the public life of this country, more than deserved. Widely regarded as the architect of modern Ireland, his was the quiet presence, the rational and informed voice, behind many of the events that have shaped recent Irish history.

Born in Rostrevor, Co Down, he went south as a six-year-old when his family moved to Drogheda, where his potential was first nurtured at the local Christian Brothers school.

Family financial constraints meant he was unable to pursue a preferred medical career, and in 1934 joined the Civil Service, entering at the basic clerical-officer grade. His talent ensured his rapid promotion, and in 1956, aged 39, he become secretary of the Department of Finance.

In 1958, against a background of economic stagnation, and motivated by "a sense of anxiety and urgency about Ireland's economic and political future", he wrote Economic Development, a blueprint for the economic regeneration of the country.

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Detailed, meticulous and comprehensive, Economic Development surveyed the Irish economy, from agriculture to tourism, examining its deficiencies as well as its potential. The document offered radical remedies: the replacement of unproductive by productive capital expenditure, the introduction of free trade, and an end to the isolation and protectionism of the previous era.

But, above all, Economic Development offered hope for the future and a way out of Ireland's economic quagmire. Economic Development and the White Paper that derived from it, The First Programme for Economic Expansion, led to a period of unparalleled constructive growth and optimism.

In these more self-serving times it is of interest to note that Economic Development was undertaken on a voluntary basis, Ken Whitaker and his team working on their own time, without expectation of monetary or promotional recompense. In this age of entitlement and bonuses, such civic-minded motivation seems sadly anachronistic.

During the 1960s Whitaker spearheaded Ireland’s convoluted path towards membership of the European Economic Community (as the European Union was then known), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In the 1970s, under his governorship, the Central Bank of Ireland was transformed into a dynamic and effective institution, which he guided through many economic upheavals, including two international oil crises.

At the start of his term as governor he gave notice that the Central Bank would be “a warning light” and that it might also have “unpalatable things” to say. From the start he set out to preserve the bank’s autonomy from both government and the commercial banking sector.

In 1970 Whitaker successfully resisted government attempts to obtain statutory control over credit policy, a move that, he said, he “could not regard as being in the national interest” and that would leave him with no option but to resign if persisted with.

Warning light

The later malfunction of that “warning light” and the lack of “unpalatable words” emanating from Dame Street during the reckless credit-creating years of the Celtic Tiger left Whitaker perplexed and appalled. His words to the current governor, Patrick Honohan – “I’m counting on you to save the country from national humiliation” – expressed the depth of his disappointment at the apparent failure of the Central Bank to discharge its obligations.

Although he is the first to acknowledge the immense changes that have in recent times revolutionised the financial and banking sectors, it is difficult not to imagine that, under his stewardship, the warning light would have been flashing in Dame Street long before the banking collapse.

Between 1967 and 1997 Whitaker played a seminal behind-the-scenes role in the search for peace in Northern Ireland. Born in the North and abhorring violence, he helped in 1965 to arrange the historic meeting between Seán Lemass, the taoiseach, and Terence O’Neill, the prime minister of Northern Ireland, at Stormont Castle.

In 1969, amid the carnage, rioting and tear gas, he wrote Jack Lynch’s famous Tralee speech, which publicly, and for the first time, committed the Irish government to a policy of reunification by consent.

One of his policy documents, Northern Ireland: A Possible Solution, written in 1971, became the template for future policy, culminating in the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Whitaker’s service to the State did not stop on his retirement from public office, in 1976. He has been a member of both the Seanad and the Council of State, was chancellor of the National University of Ireland for 20 years and was chairman of Bord na Gaeilge. More than 40 organisations have benefited from the wisdom he volunteered to share.

Today Whitaker is an example of positive ageing. His continuing interest in public affairs, his openness to new ideas, his generosity and good humour are notable. He is sanguine about reputation, noting “that if you live long enough you would either be canonised or found out – the worst fate being found out after you are canonised”.

In him we are reminded of what is best in all of us, as a society and as individuals. His words from 1969 are still relevant: “Let us remember that we are not seeking economic progress for purely materialistic reasons but because it makes possible relief of hardship and want, the establishment of a better social order, the raising of human dignity and, eventually, the participation of all . . . in the benefits, moral and cultural, as well as material, of spending their lives and bringing up their families in Ireland.”

Anne Chambers is author of TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot (Doubleday Ireland); you can read an extract at bit.ly/1QeFJTc TK Whitaker was the first participant in the 'Irish Times' Generations series; the interview is at irishtimes.com/generations