Public servant and architect of modern Ireland TK Whitaker marks a century

His critical contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process is less well known

 

In the shaping of modern Ireland, no one has played a more important role than TK Whitaker. In celebrating his 100th birthday today, he has lived to see many of his bold policy ideas implemented which, since the late 1950s, have helped transform Ireland’s economic fortunes.

His achievements have over many decades seen him in many guises: first, as public servant, later, Central Bank governor, then Senator, member of the Council of State, with many years spent heading commissions, committees – including chairmanship of the Constitution Review Group in 1996. He may have resigned from public office in 1976, but for the past 40 years he has rarely been inactive; always ready to provide the State some service – and offer wise counsel – when and where most needed. A modest man who, when asked how he would most like to be remembered, said “As a public servant who did his best”.

In 1959 Sean Lemass said: “The historic task of this generation is to ensure the economic foundation of independence.” Ken Whitaker, as secretary of the Department of Finance, had already outlined the grounds for a new departure in economic policy to provide that foundation. His radical plan meant scrapping the failed policy of protectionism, and adapting to a free trade world. Economic Development, the blueprint for revival – prepared with departmental colleagues – became the key to national economic survival. A blueprint newly-elected taoiseach Lemass, readily accepted, and enthusiastically implemented.

Less well known, but no less significant, has been his background role and life-long interest in Northern Ireland. He organised and accompanied Lemass on his historic visit to Stormont in 1965 to meet Terence O’Neill. And later he provided wise counsel at a critical moment: advising Jack Lynch in 1969 – at a time of heightened nationalist emotions – on the need for a restrained response to the outbreak of violence in Belfast.

In his 101st year Dr Whitaker has much to celebrate in a life of achievement. The State too has benefitted greatly from the contributions of an architect of modern Ireland.

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