The man who made modern Ireland

TK Whitaker: economic plan – Using rhetoric he knew would ruffle feathers, he called on government to stop sheltering behind protectionism

November 1964:  Taoiseach Seán Lemass,  minister for industry and commerce Jack Lynch, and TK Whitaker, secretary of the Department of Finance. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack

November 1964: Taoiseach Seán Lemass, minister for industry and commerce Jack Lynch, and TK Whitaker, secretary of the Department of Finance. Photograph: Jimmy McCormack


Economic Development, the plan which later won him the accolade of Irishman of the 20th century, did not emerge as a blinding light illuminating the darkness of 1950s Ireland, bedevilled by economic stagnation, a crises in public finances, rampant emigration, lack of entrepreneurial spirit and an atmosphere of national despondency.

Instead, it was shaped after a gestation period of observation and analysis and motivated by a “sense of deep anxiety about Ireland”s political and economic future”.

Shortly after his appointment as secretary of the department of finance in early 1957, what he referred to as “this dark night of the soul”, Economic Development began to take shape.

In February, before a general election, he went on an exploratory mission to Washington to assess the prospects of joining the IMF and World Bank. Ireland, he felt, needed not only technical advice and training, but also the finance needed for capital investment.

On his return, he let fly the first salvo in the battle towards economic independence. Before his departure to Washington, he had picked up a copy of the satirical magazine Ireland’s Own, whose front page showed a cartoon of a bedraggled and dejected Kathleen Ní Houlihan figure asking a fortune-teller if she had any future.

Encapsulating the essence of the country”s economic difficulties, the cartoon became an added motivation on his journey. His first working folder was headed Has Ireland a Future?

The Irish Economy On March 1st, on his first day in office, the new Fianna Fáil minister for finance, Dr James Ryan, was confronted with a document entitled The Irish Economy, written by the secretary of his department.

In language that could well be interpreted as breaching the boundary between public servant and politician, but which Whitaker deemed necessary given the desperate circumstances facing the country, he wrote: “We have come to a critical and decisive point in our economic affairs. It is only too clear that the policies we have hitherto followed have not resulted in a viable economy.”

He urged the government to stop sheltering “behind a protectionist blockade” which not only condemned the Irish people to a lower standard of living than in the rest of Europe, but he also encouraged emigration and threatened to make “it impossible to preserve the 26 counties as an economic entity”.

Resorting to rhetoric that he knew would more than ruffle feathers in the government of de Valera and Lemass, he added, that if they did not change course, “it would be better to make an immediate move towards reincorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent”.

The response from the Government was immediate and positive, especially from Seán Lemass. “After all, he was the apostle of protectionism,” Whitaker remembered, “so if you could convince him to move away from it, there was nobody else in the cabinet who would defend it.”

Cabinet endorsement

With the assistance of a band of young civil service acolytes, drafting began. By May 1958, the blueprint for the economic regeneration of the country was completed. Detailed, meticulous and practical, written in a style and in a language aimed at the ordinary citizen as much as at politicians, it offered a radical remedy.

Non-productive capital expenditure would be replaced; free trade would be introduced and the protectionism of the existing era would be abandoned.

It lowered the barriers Ireland had erected around itself and allowed the Irish people to look at their country, not from some mystic, historically idealised vantage point but from eye level. But above all, Economic Development offered hope and a way out of the economic quagmire in which Ireland and its people were fast bound. Economic Development and the First Programme for Economic Expansion derived from it, which ed to a period of growth and optimism.