TK Whitaker, supreme mandarin and good citizen - Fintan O’Toole’s assessment

Ireland’s greatest conservative revolutionary forced the state to alter the way it saw itself

Former Governor of the Central Bank, TK Whitaker, is described by some of those who know him best as he celebrated his 100th birthday. Video: The Central Bank of Ireland


In Giuseppe de Lampedusa’s great novel, The Leopard, a conservative 19th-century Italian aristocrat is shocked to find his beloved nephew is running away to join the revolutionaries. But the nephew famously explains: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

TK Whitaker was the greatest of Ireland’s conservative revolutionaries. He wanted things to stay as they were and, in a culture ravaged by mass emigration, people to stay where they were. He grasped the great paradox of his time: that Ireland could not be stabilised without radical change. He did not imagine just how deep the transformation would be. But he had the intellectual authority, the political skill and the quiet charisma to force a sclerotic state to alter the way it thought about itself.

It is emigration, more than anything else, that explains TK Whitaker. Only two European countries experienced a fall in population in the 1950s. One was East Germany, from which people were fleeing to the west. The other was Ireland, from which more people were emigrating each year than were leaving East Germany. The East Germans responded by putting up the Berlin Wall. Ireland, thanks in large measure to Whitaker, responded by taking down the economic walls behind which it had carried out a failed experiment in protected development. In both cases, the pressure for action was the same – the fear that the state would not survive.

For Ireland, the existential threat was summed up in the title of a book that made a splash in 1954: The Vanishing Irish. The scale of emigration in the 1950s remains staggering. It was, moreover, getting worse. Between 1951 and 1956, 197,000 more people left than entered the country – a figure that seemed appalling at the time. Between 1956 and 1961, the net figure rose to 212,000. In 1957 alone, the year before Whitaker published his revolutionary document Economic Development, almost 2 per cent of the entire population emigrated. By 1961, not much more than half of all those born in Ireland in the 1930s were still living on the island.

People were leaving for many reasons but mostly because the economy simply couldn’t support them. The small farms that were the ideal location of the Gaelic rural idyll could not provide more than a subsistence living for large Catholic families. During the 1950s, 120,000 people left agricultural occupations. Not only were services and industry unable to employ these people – they too were in decline; 44,000 fewer people were employed in these sectors in 1961 than in 1951.

As Whitaker put it in Economic Development, there was a “vicious circle . . . of increasing migration, resulting in a small domestic market depleted of initiative and skill and a reduced incentive . . . to undertake and organise the productive enterprises which alone can provide increased employment opportunities.”

But there was also, as there would be again after the crash of 2008, a phenomenon that was in some ways even more disturbing: men and women actually resigning secure white-collar jobs to emigrate, especially to Canada and the United States. Even people who had choices were choosing to leave. This in turn pointed to a much larger crisis of confidence: there was no real sense that governments or the State as a whole could do anything to stop the decline. When, in 1956, the Catholic hierarchy declared a day of prayer for emigrants, it seemed as good a plan as any. In the 1957 general election, the triumphant Fianna Fáil leader Éamon de Valera pledged that economic policy would “try to continue on the path they had trodden before” with the goal of becoming “as self-contained as possible”. The irony that a self-contained economy could not contain its own population was apparently lost on him.

Wrecking ball

It is this context that makes sense of TK Whitaker’s emergence as a conservative revolutionary. He is easily caricatured as the man who took a great wrecking ball to the whole edifice of Irish nationalist mythology, with its vision of a Gaelic Utopia of sturdy small farmers thriving behind the walls of economic protectionism, piety and censorship. But he never set out to wreck anything. His goal was simply to save the State. He had the courage to see what most of the political establishment refused to acknowledge: that independent Ireland was rapidly becoming unsustainable. As he put it in a blunt memorandum to the incoming minister for finance James Ryan in March 1957, without a complete turnaround in the economy, political independence was a “crumbling facade”.

It is by no means clear that he anticipated, still less desired, the sweeping consequences for Irish identity of the economic changes he proposed. Whitaker was emphatically neither a political nor a cultural radical. In 1953, he wrote a piece in the journal Administration which suggested he entirely shared the Department of Finance’s traditional reactionary scepticism about any talk of State-led development: “Our function is not to select the most meritorious [departmental proposals] and clap them on the taxpayer’s back but, rather, to see that as few as possible emerge as new burdens on the community”.

It is easily forgotten that even Economic Development, published five years later, is highly conservative in its social vision: Whitaker proposes raising funds for “productive” investment by cutting spending on social housing and hospitals. He also sets the aim of keeping the growth of wages and salaries significantly lower than in Britain. And Economic Development has almost nothing to say about what would in fact be the most revolutionary aspect of the modernisation of Ireland: the huge expansion in access to education.

Catholic nationalism

Equally, Whitaker had no desire to destroy the verities of Irish Catholic nationalism. He was a fluent Irish speaker with a huge affection for the language, even if it was tempered by a realistic acceptance of the strength and utility of English. As a Northerner, he actually took the idea of a United Ireland seriously. He remained all his life a liberal, open-minded but deeply religious Catholic. Far from foreseeing the long-term consequences of his plans for the Irish Catholic church, he hoped that a cosmopolitan modernity would sit side-by-side with religious tradition.

In a talk he gave in 1977, he noted how, when he visited the shrines of Irish saints in places like St Gallen and Salzburg, local Germanic saints shared the honours on the altars: “I suppose Irish initiative and devotion needed eventually to be underpinned by German organisation and method!” He seems to have imagined for Ireland a similarly peaceful co-existence of existing traditions and international energies.

Bureaucratic coup

It is not even true to say that Whitaker invented the new strategy of seeking to create an open, export-oriented economy. The department of industry and commerce had been trying to push a developmental strategy from the immediate post-war years: the Industrial Development Authority was established in 1949 and Córas Tráchtála (the Irish Trade Board) in 1952. The same department argued for generous tax reliefs for exporting companies (current Irish corporation tax policy in embryo) from 1947 onwards. It was the Department of Finance that had continued to block such measures. At one level, Whitaker’s initiative in publishing Economic Development was a brilliant bureaucratic coup – finance stealing the clothes of industry and commerce.

But this mattered in itself – Whitaker threw the weight of the weightiest department behind change. Perhaps even more importantly, he provided cover for the political establishment.

It still seems remarkable that Economic Development, written after all by the State’s most powerful civil servant, was published, not as a government document, but in Whitaker’s own name. This was a breathtaking departure from the bureaucratic culture of covering one’s own behind at all costs. He knew, of course, that he had the full support of Seán Lemass – but it remained the case that Whitaker knowingly placed himself in the line of fire and that if his political masters chose to retreat, he was mortally exposed.

If nothing else, he provided an object lesson in personal accountability – one that his successors have been careful not to follow.

Whitaker also set a new tone in official discourse. Economic Development is remarkable for the way it connects with the ordinary experience of citizens: “The common talk among parents in the towns, as in rural Ireland, is of their children having to emigrate as soon as their education is completed in order to be sure of a reasonable livelihood.”

As a writer, Whitaker hit a note that combined a harsh realism about the present with a reassuring confidence that the future could be better. It is hard to overstate the importance of this mix of honesty and hope in a culture that seemed to have only two modes of discourse – either piously optimistic cliches or bitter, impotent fatalism.

Arguably, Whitaker’s ability to inject equal doses of realism and confidence into the body politic was even more important than his actual economic strategy.

Indeed, much of that strategy was not really followed. Social spending was not slashed as he had urged; Irish wages, contrary to his plan, grew faster than those in Britain. Whitaker’s lack of social vision was, rightly, challenged by others, as when Donogh O’Malley, to Whitaker’s outrage, bypassed his anticipated objections and announced free secondary education.

Nor, as is sometimes assumed, was the opening up of the economy a fairytale of magical transformation: in 1988, 30 years after Economic Development, Irish per capita GDP was still more than one-third below the western European average, roughly the same ratio as in 1955.

Liberation from platitudes

What Whitaker did achieve, though, was a liberation from platitudes. He articulated at the centre of State power what writers like Tom Murphy, Edna O’Brien and John McGahern were expressing artistically – the belief that being Irish was not a cause or an aspiration or a mystical mission but a human reality. It wasn’t about seeking spiritual solace in poverty. It wasn’t about repeating rhetorical demands for a United Ireland while ignoring political truths – hence his vital role in Lemass’s opening to the North and, later, in injecting the principle of consent into mainstream nationalism.

And it wasn’t about defending an abstract notion of sovereignty that had failed in practice – hence his equally clear-eyed pursuit of a European future for Ireland. It was about having the confidence to see Ireland as it really was and still love it. That confidence proved to be quietly infectious.

Ken Whitaker had the instincts of a supreme mandarin, but the curiosity, the intelligence and the backbone of a good citizen. He tried throughout his public life to tell the truth as he saw it. He was conservative enough to believe that the Ireland he loved could survive only by acknowledging the truth of its own place in the world and adapting to how things really were. That process turned out to be more revolutionary, and more incomplete, than he could have known.

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