‘An officer decidedly more than average’

TK Whitaker: the young civil servant – talent was evident from beginning of civil service career

1974:  TK Whitaker, governor of the Central Bank.  Photograph: Tom Lawlor

1974: TK Whitaker, governor of the Central Bank. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

 

In 1939, a senior Civil Service officer wrote a performance review of the 22-year-old TK Whitaker, describing him as “highly intelligent, an officer decidedly more than average”.

Such accolades were rare in the hierarchical Civil Service of the day, though Whitaker was destined to be no ordinary public servant. In 1934, he entered at the basic clerical officer grade.

There his talent broke through predictive promotional convention and his record rise through the ranks, unequalled to this day, saw him at 39 years of age, become Secretary of the Department of Finance in 1956.

Whitaker’s early training as a public servant was both practical and ideological. While the economic and social legacy inherited from the British may have left much to be desired, the legacy of an effective Civil Service helped lay the foundations for the new Irish state. With the handover of the civil administration went an almost seamless transfer of senior civil servants, such as JJ McElliggott, Arthur Codling, a Yorkshire man, Joseph Brennan and HP Boland.

The example of these and other backroom pioneers, who without fear or favour, felt duty-bound to guide the young State through its difficult infancy, was to have a major influence on the next generation of public servants, such as Ken Whitaker.

Memorable appointment

During his tenure in Education, London University afforded him an opportunity, not then available in Ireland, to undertake a third-level degree course by correspondence. From the start, economics became his metier. “I found it interesting because it related to every day practical affairs and pressures.” A BA in 1938 was followed by an honours BSc(econ) in 1944 and in 1952 an honours MSc (econ). In 2013, at the age of 96, he was awarded a DSc (Econ) honoris causa by his alma mater – or his “stepmother” as he liked to call it.

His appointment in 1938 as a junior administrative officer in the Department of Finance was to be propitious. In Finance, “you felt you were on the golden route, at the heart of things.”

Presided over by the formidable JJ McElligott, economic policy in this pre-Keynesian period was, as Whitaker recalled “all about balancing the public finances. Government spending was regarded as a threatening influence . . . the idea of management via the budget would not have been an option.”

Considerable responsibility

In 1951 he was appointed to head a new section in Finance dealing with economic, monetary and budgetary policy, capital expenditure and the collation and study of statistical information.

During the War years the overriding national priority was the economic survival of the Free State, an objective that chimed with the orthodoxy espoused by the Department of Finance. In the aftermath of the war, however, young minds such as Ken Whitaker became infused with the spirit of economic change which began to sweep away the debris of war-torn Europe and Britain.

With a Department of Finance wedded to the status quo and a Government committed to protectionism, it would take something special to break through the impasse that held Ireland in an economic straitjacket.

In 1956 the tradition of promotion by seniority was pushed aside when Ken Whitaker was appointed Secretary of the Department of Finance. His appointment set in train a series of events that was to earn him the sobriquet “architect of modern Ireland”.