One of the key figures in shaping modern Ireland turns 100 today

TK Whitaker was just 39 when he became secretary at the Department of Finance.

By Dr David McCann Lecturer, Ulster University

ONE OF THE most important figures in charting the course of independent Ireland turns 100 today. If you don’t already know the name TK Whitaker, you should – and here’s why.

Dr Thomas Kenneth Whitaker came on board as secretary of the Department of Finance at a time of economic crisis during the 1950s.

The situation he faced when taking on this role – at the age of 39 – was a country with high emigration, with 400,000 leaving Ireland between 1951 and 1961, high unemployment and a highly protected economy.

Compounding these economic problems were international isolation and a lack of any real engagement with Northern Ireland.

It is easy in 2016 to be dismissive of just how dire the situation was in Ireland at that time. The country’s population had fallen below 3 million for first time in its history, and both the media and government officials were questioning the viability of the state as an independent entity.

After nearly 40 years of self-government, Ireland’s independence looked like it was going to end in failure. Luckily, Whitaker was not prepared to simply sit back and manage the orderly decline of the state and its people.

24/6/2010. Dr TK Whitaker TK Whitaker with then-finance minister Brian Lenihan in 2010
Source: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Towards prosperity

He began exploring ways in which the economy could be improved and set about convincing his political masters that the protectionist policies that had been pursued for the last decade were hurting growth, and that a more free trade-orientated approach would help create jobs and improve living standards.

What was remarkable about all of this was that Whitaker led this without any major involvement from the government of the day. The documents that followed from this work helped lead Ireland out of the economic mire and into an era of prosperity.

He was successful in persuading politicians such as Seán Lemass that this was the way forward and that those in the government and the civil service who were sceptical had to be faced down. The end result of this new departure in Irish economic thinking was staggering.

Ireland enjoyed a growth rate of around 4% annually, emigration fell, and there was a steady drop in unemployment.

The turnaround was so rapid that even international publications such as TIME Magazine ran profiles lauding the country as a success story. This was a world away from the Dublin Opinion depiction of Ireland in 1957 as a beggar nation questioning the very future of its independence.

Ireland in 1966 could remember the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising with pride in its past, but also a confidence in the future. Whitaker validated the argument that decisions made in Ireland by Irish men and women would ultimately lead to better days.

9/9/2010 Lemass International Forums
Source: Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

Northern Ireland

Despite Whitaker’s success in helping to turn around the economy, there was another sacred cow that he wanted to slay – and that was the Irish government’s approach towards Northern Ireland.

Born in Rostrevor, County Down, he always kept strong links with the North, even though he moved to Drogheda as a child.

For years, Whitaker had enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Unionist prime minister Terence O’Neill and some of his advisors. Behind the scenes, he was instrumental in putting together the ground-breaking summit between Lemass and O’Neill in January 1965.

Politics - Irish Prime Ministers Meeting - Dublin Terence O'Neill and taoiseach Seán Lemass in 1965
Source: PA Archive/PA Images

This was the first time since 1925 that two heads of government on the island met one another, with agreements on cooperation in trade, electricity and tourism following from the meeting. Whitaker was the conduit to bring them together and played a central role in setting the agenda for the summit.

His influence over Northern Ireland policy continued under the administration of Jack Lynch. As the Troubles broke out in August 1969, he was the man whom Lynch turned to for advice when his Cabinet was deeply divided over how to respond to the escalating violence in the North.

Whitaker’s advice to Lynch to remain calm and not indulge those within his government who wanted direct military intervention was critical in ensuring that a bad situation was not made worse.

He continued as an informal advisor on Northern Ireland to Lynch in those first months of the Troubles, continuously reinforcing the moderate instincts of the Taoiseach.

Dedicated service

One column cannot do justice to a man who has devoted his life to public service. The founding fathers of the Irish state made huge sacrifices to get Irish independence, but it was men like TK Whitaker who showed us what we could do with it to improve the lot of every citizen.

In a cool, calm and methodical way, Whitaker used his position to advance the Irish nation at home and abroad. He showed us that Irish independence could work and that this country could stand on its own two feet.

As he turns 100, we should pause for a moment and recognise a decent man, who helped advance the interests of the nation he served so diligently for more than four decades.

Dr David McCann is a lecturer in politics and government at Ulster University.

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