‘A gamble on peace’ – Dorcha Lee on TK Whitaker and defence spending

An Irishman’s Diary

TK Whitaker: in 1973 he was invited to address officers at the Military College. He told them that “on defence we are like an uninsured, untaxed motorist, skimping on car maintenance”. Photograph: Tom Lawlor

In or around 1973, Dr TK Whitaker, the then governor of the Central Bank, and former secretary of the Department of Finance, was invited to address officers at the Military College. The college commandant introduced the speaker, with the direction to officers – no recording, no note-taking and no attribution. The ante-room was packed and the two gigantic mirrors at each end of the room gave the illusion of a sea of uniforms stretching into infinity.

Dr Whitaker had a cheerful and affable style of address which put his somewhat neutral, but wary, audience at ease. All present were fully aware that, when he was secretary of the Department of Finance, he wielded massive influence on budgetary allocations to government departments, including defence. However, Ireland's defence spending, then at 1.30 per cent of GDP, was approximately half that of other EEC member states, and the Department of Finance was seen by some serving officers of the Defence Forces to be the main problem.

TK spoke softly with good humour and enthusiasm of his vision of Ireland in the EEC, where our society and economy would be transformed. To us, it did seem a bit of a long shot, to imagine Ireland aspiring to full employment and a standard of living comparable to the richest in Europe.

Asked why we were underfunding defence in comparison to other EEC member states, he gave an honest and direct reply. This was government policy. The current priority was to modernise agriculture, develop industry and invest in education. He said “on defence we are like an uninsured, untaxed motorist, skimping on car maintenance. So long as we don’t have an accident or are not stopped by the Guards, we will get away with it. As the years go by, all that money that would have been spent on defence would be available to invest in infrastructure, social services and creating employment. It is a gamble, if you like, on peace.”


This did not go down well with his audience, and notwithstanding the presence of the college commandant and the school commandants in the front row, there was a polite but negative murmur, with several questions raised. Then he added, " The defence priority at present is to support the Guards on the Border, while still playing a role, in peacekeeping missions." However, on national defence "we plan to keep the ability to expand rapidly in the event of a further emergency. This means having a minimum of military capabilities so that we retain the knowledge and expertise, plus Reserve Defence Forces, necessary to expand. We are now (1973) in a far better position to expand than we were in 1939".

No one could dispute that.

The formal presentation was over, and the college commandant led the speaker to the bar, where the real discussion commenced.

Approximately three or four years later I found myself sitting opposite TK at an Alliance Française lunch in Kilkenny, where members were encouraged to converse in French. He regaled us with story after story, including his private meeting with President de Gaulle. I had recently returned from a course with the French army and asked him if he had any new reflections on defence. In fluent, if a little stilted, French, he repeated basically his original comments on defence, including his comparison to the government behaving on defence issues like an uninsured motorist. This repetition, at the lunch, is my excuse for breaching the college commandant's instruction on non- attribution.

As an advocate for increased defence spending, I remain conflicted. Modern crises tend to escalate from peace to war much more quickly than they did in the past. Still, over the past 50 years the savings of approximately 1 per cent of GDP per annum on defence has to be considered significant. However, long after TK left the public stage, defence spending was allowed to fall to less than a quarter of average EU levels, to today's level of 0.27 per cent of GDP. The consequences for national defence are very serious. The Army has not got the combined arms capability to function on the modern battlefield. The Air Corps has no interceptor jets to defend our air space and the Naval Service does not have a single warship capable of naval combat. Worst of all, we have lost the ability and expertise to expand rapidly in time of Emergency, which TK emphasised. Moreover, continued underinvestment in defence remains a latent threat to foreign investment.

TK Whitaker, civil servant, patriot, optimist and visionary, would never have approved.

As regards what he said in the Military College officers’ mess bar afterwards, in keeping with mess tradition, I shall forever hold that in pectore.


Dorcha Lee

is a retired Army colonel