Thomas Kenneth Whitaker, who has died aged 100, was the most influential public servant in the history of the State, both during his professional career and in retirement when he continued to advise governments of the day on Northern Ireland as well as the economy.
He is most remembered for his inspirational paper Economic Development in 1958, out of which grew the First Programme for Economic Expansion. Written when he was secretary of the Department of Finance, the ideas in them gave new hope to an Ireland from which young people were fleeing in their thousands after years of a stagnant economy and mounting unemployment.
He also played a key role in setting up the historic cross-border meetings in 1965 between the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, and the Northern Ireland prime minister, Terence O’Neill, and in 1967 between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and O’Neill.
When Northern Ireland exploded into crisis in August 1969, a beleaguered Lynch turned to Whitaker for advice to calm the situation and rein in ministers like Charles Haughey and Neil Blaney, who were in favour of sending the army across the border. Whitaker continued to advise Lynch on the North and draft key speeches for him over the next decade.
As governor of the Central Bank in the 1970s, he tightened controls over the banking sector and urged governments to restrain foreign borrowing as they grappled with the fall-out from the oil crisis and devaluation. He used his four years in the Seanad from 1977 to speak out on Northern Ireland and the economy.
As chancellor of the National University of Ireland, he presided over reforms for the constituent colleges. He also played an active role in promoting the Irish language, which he loved. Even in so-called retirement, he continued to write numerous articles, give lectures and chair bodies working for reform in many areas of Irish life, including prisons and fisheries. He was keen salmon angler himself.
Ken Whitaker was born on December 8th, 1916, in Rostrevor, Co Down, where his father, Edward, was assistant manager of a linen mill. His mother, Jane O'Connor, his father's second wife, came from Coolmeen, Co Clare. His Northern origin was to give him an added motive to seek the peaceful re-unification of Ireland.
In 1922, the family moved to Drogheda, where his father worked in the Greenmount and Boyne Mill. They lived in a house called Paradise Cottage. Ken attended the local Christian Brother schools. He gained top marks in all subjects in his Leaving Certificate but university was not possible on his father’s pension. Instead, he joined the civil service after taking first place in the clerical officer examination.
His first posting was to the Civil Service Commission but he was promoted rapidly up the ranks, usually winning first place in the examinations. After just four years, he was promoted to junior administrative officer and joined what was then seen as an elite group in the Department of Finance. In 1941, he married Nora Fogarty, a fellow civil servant whom he had met in the Department of Education. He had also become interested in economics and studied for a degree in maths, Celtic studies and Latin by correspondence course with London University. He was awarded an honours BA in economics in 1941 and an MSc in 1952.
His rapid promotions marked him out as a high flier and he attracted the attention of his various ministers. He clashed with the minister for external affairs, Seán MacBride, in the 1948-51 Inter-Party Government, over the minister’s plans for the spending of Marshall Aid to Ireland in areas such as afforestation. Whitaker was summoned to appear before the cabinet to defend his criticism, a daunting experience for him. When the Irish pound was devalued in 1949 in line with sterling, ministers turned to Whitaker to explain all the implications and he was highly praised for his role.
When the top post in the department became vacant in 1956 Whitaker was appointed over the heads of more senior officials and at 39 was head of the civil service and the most powerful public servant. He owed his promotion to the then Fine Gael minister for finance, Gerard Sweetman, whom he had obviously impressed.
Various governments seemed powerless to reverse the Irish economy’s slide into depression while other European countries were slowly recovering from wartime destruction. Whitaker and other young officials in Finance like Patrick Lynch saw the only answer was to end the protectionism associated with Fianna Fáil and borrow abroad to finance productive investment using new international bodies like the IMF and the World Bank.
When Fianna Fáil returned to office in 1957, Whitaker confronted his new minister, Dr James Ryan, with a paper called The Irish Economy, setting out the challenges and even going so far as to say that if nothing were done it would “be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation into the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became ever more apparent”.
Whitaker’s shock tactic worked and the government gave the go-ahead for joining the IMF and World Bank. He gathered a small team to work on a plan for economic expansion based on French and Italian planning models. By May 1958, the first draft of Economic Development went to cabinet which by July accepted it as government policy. It formed the basis for a White Paper published in November called Programme for Economic Expansion. The earlier document, also called the Grey Book from its cover, was also published, naming Whitaker as the author, an unprecedented action in the civil service. Some saw this as the government having a scapegoat if the plan went wrong.
Both documents were widely welcomed at home and abroad. Whitaker himself describes them as a “farewell to the old outmoded ideas for economic and social progress. Self-sufficiency was abandoned and to over-simplify a little, the new programme put grass before grain and, on the industrial side, put export-orientated expansion, even under foreign ownership, before dependence on protected domestic industry, lacking adequate enterprise and skill.”
The historian, JJ Lee, wrote 40 years later that both documents “bear throughout the stamp of a first-class mind. Their sheer quality comes through more luminously with the passage of time.”
The programme soon began to meet its targets of increased growth and reduced unemployment. In 1961, Ireland applied to join the new European Economic Community and Whitaker was sent to the capitals of the six members with Con Cremin from external affairs to sound out the reaction. He reported that Irish neutrality and economic under-development could be obstacles to full EEC membership and advised a waiting game.
Following the 1965 election, Seán Lemass appointed Jack Lynch as the new minister for finance. Whitaker advised him to curb spending in his first budget as the success of the first programme was leading to inflation and excessive borrowing.
Whitaker also took the lead role in the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement and earned Lemass’s praise for efforts “far beyond the normal call of duty”. Whitaker was not happy, however, by the sudden announcement of free secondary education by minister Donogh O’Malley without cabinet approval.
He immediately wrote to Lemass that it was “astonishing” that such a major change in educational policy should be announced at a seminar for journalists.
Lemass resigned due to illness in 1966 and his successor, Jack Lynch, appointed Charles Haughey to Finance. He and Whitaker had already clashed over excessive spending when he was Minister for Agriculture.
Whitaker was wary of Haughey and told his biographer Anne Chambers that he found Haughey “not overly inspiring . . . tending to be over-confident and to favour the spectacular . . . you had to admire his tenacity and ruthlessness . . . but that did not mean you supported it.”
Haughey favoured expansionary budgets and increased borrowing, refusing to follow Whitaker’s more cautious approach. He told Chambers: “I was well able to defend myself. I think he would have known that if it came to any sort of public disagreement, the people would respect my views more than his.”
There was surprise, however, when Whitaker decided to leave Finance early in 1969 and become governor of the Central Bank. He was still only 52. There were rumours that his strained relations with Haughey had led to this decision but he insisted it was his own and that he “was not pushed”.
Given the events that were to evolve over the next 18 months involving Haughey and Northern Ireland, Whitaker’s departure was probably well-timed.
In parallel to his absorbing job in Finance, Whitaker continued to maintain his high-level contacts in Northern Ireland, setting up the Lemass and Lynch visits to Stormont, so it was not surprising that he observed the embryonic civil rights movement in 1968 with special interest. In a note for the Taoiseach on North-South Relations, he set out his long-held views on partition. It was not simply imposed by Britain and threatening force would lead nowhere. He had little time for the Constitutional claim on the six counties, saying there was “nothing we can do about it in the present circumstances except forget it”.
He urged more cooperation in cross-border projects and encouragement for O’Neill to introduce reforms. He also pointed out that the annual £90 million subsidy for Northern Ireland from Westminster was a key factor when trying to win over unionist minds and hearts to a united Ireland.
With his own minister, Haughey, he had repeated the ruling-out of force as a solution to partition only to get a note back that “we would never abandon the moral right to use force. We have the right to use force to defend the national territory.”
When the Bogside in Derry exploded into violent clashes with the RUC in August 1969, Lynch came under strong pressure from the hawks in the cabinet to take action, resulting in his TV address on August 13th warning that “the Irish Government can no longer stand by and see people injured or worse”. Secretly, Lynch turned to Whitaker as he sought to defuse the dangerous situation which his speech may have helped to worsen, as British troops were deployed in Catholic areas.
Whitaker was on holidays in Connemara when he was summoned by a local garda to telephone Lynch. He gave him his advice and the names of contacts close to the Northern government.
He followed the call with a letter warning of the danger of appearing to support extremists on either side. “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.”
As refugees from Belfast and Derry streamed across the border and the IRA began to stir into life, Lynch asked Whitaker to draft a speech he was to deliver in Tralee in late September. It was intended to assure unionists and Britain that Dublin ruled out any resort to force and to restore calm to the turbulence in the North.
Lynch used all of the Whitaker draft, only leaving out the standing-down of army reservists, intended as a reconciliatory gesture. There was widespread welcome for the speech and Whitaker, although now ensconced in the Central Bank, continued to work with some Finance officials on a blueprint for a long-term solution to the partition problem. He also, with Lynch’s approval, continued to meet high-level contacts in Northern Ireland.
He worried at the rise of the Provisional IRA and the increasing violence north and south and what he saw as the Government’s reluctance to come down hard. In a letter in French in August 1971 to Cardinal Conway made available to his biographer, Whitaker wrote : “It is members of the IRA who lead the population and even the Southern Government by the nose. They think they will be looked on as the ‘Resistance Heroes’ and will hold a frightening power in the future.”
He later wrote to Lynch urging him to “make a strong statement against the horror of the IRA campaign in the North . . . I’m afraid the Government are thought to be ambivalent if not indulgent.”
Whitaker worked with friends in Britain to set up the British-Irish Association, which every year brought together influential speakers from both islands.
He continued to advise Lynch, draft speeches and submit ideas for a peaceful solution to partition, some of which were incorporated in the Sunningdale Agreement and policy proposals published by the Dublin and London governments.
Meanwhile, at the Central Bank he continued to urge the government to restrain borrowing but with little response as the 1973 oil crisis upset the economic plans of the new Fine Gael-Labour government. He was even invited to a meeting of the cabinet by minister for finance, Richie Ryan, to discuss the economic situation and give advice.
He also got caught up in the wrangling over the height of the new Central Bank building on Dame Street, a problem he inherited but for which he incurred criticism in the media.
When his seven-year term expired in 1976, there was widespread surprise, even unease, that he was not willing to serve a second term. It was surmised he was unhappy at being unable to influence government policy. He told Richie Ryan he should “use more muscle on his colleagues in Government with a view to better management of the public finances”.
In 1977, Jack Lynch, back as Taoiseach, appointed Whitaker to the Seanad. He insisted he would be an independent and not a Fianna Fáil voice as he spoke out frankly on economic and Northern Ireland affairs. He was given a second term by Garret FitzGerald in 1981 but did not get a third term when Haughey became Taoiseach in 1982.
He used every opportunity to promote the preservation of the Irish language which his family spoke at home. He had a holiday home in the north Mayo Gaeltacht and while still in the Central Bank agreed to chair the new Bord na Gaeilge. He was also the inspiration of An Duanaire, an anthology of poems in Irish with English translations compiled by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella.
His so-called retirement was filled with numerous activities. He was elected chancellor of the National University of Ireland to succeed Éamon de Valera. During his term, he promoted much-needed reforms and did much of the groundwork for the autonomy of the three constituent colleges and St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, in 1997 soon after he retired.
Other bodies he chaired or presided over included the Royal Irish Academy, the Agency for Personal Service Overseas, the Constitution Review Group, the inquiry into the penal system, the Sea Trout Task Force and the Wild Salmon Support Group. He was appointed to the Council of State by President Mary Robinson in 1991.
He was the first Irish person to be invested with the Order of Commandeur de la Legion d’Honneur. He received honorary doctorates from NUI, Trinity College, Queen’s University, New University of Ulster, Dublin City University and London University.
He was to experience family grief in his later years. His wife Nora died after a long illness in 1994 after 53 years of married life. Four years later, he endured another grievous loss when his only daughter, Catherine, one of his main supports at home, died of cancer. Then in 2002, his second son, Gerry, suffered a brain haemorrhage while walking his dog and died soon afterwards.
In 2005 he married a family friend, Mary Moore, with whom he shared many interests, but she died in 2008.
In spite of his age, Whitaker’s contribution to Irish life was still esteemed by younger generations. In 2002 he was voted ‘Irishman of the 20th Century’ by RTÉ viewers. A year later he was given the ESB/Rehab ‘Greatest Living Irish Person’ award.