Book review: TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot

The RTÉ television audience voted TK Whitaker “Irishman of the 20th Century” in 2001. 

Book review: TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot

TK Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot

Anne Chambers

Doubleday Ireland, £22.99 HB

He was the author and inspiration of the Programme for Economic Expansion published in 1958, which was credited with revolutionising the Irish economy.

Although Seán Lemass is frequently credited with that revival, it virtually reversed the economic protectionism with which Lemass had been most associated since the 1930s. Minister for Finance James Ryan was adamant that Whitaker’s name should be publicly associated with the plan, much against the wishes of one of his cabinet colleagues — Seán MacEntee.

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera left the economic plan to Lemass, who backed Ryan in publicly attributing the 1958 plan to Dr Whitaker.

“It was a deliberate decision, part of our effort to get economic development away from party political tags,” Lemass explained.

The plan involved a major reversal in policy, in both the abandonment of industrial protectionism and the goal of achieving agricultural self-sufficiency.

Long before he became Secretary of the Department of Finance in 1958 at the age of 39, Dr Whitaker was deeply involved in drafting budget speeches. Dr Whitaker served under six different Ministers for Finance.

Donogh O’Malley’s introduction of “free education” was revolutionary. It “was a good idea,” because, within three years, it led to an increase of over 40% in the number of pupils going on to secondary education, but Dr Whitaker was critical of the way it was announced.

The book unfortunately fails to provide any insight into Dr Whitaker’s assessment of the Long Fellow’s economic outlook. Instead, we get little more than a caricature based on Tim Pat Coogan’s biography.

While Lemass and senior civil servants may not have conformed to the frugality preached by de Valera, they lived modestly.

“By the mid-1960s, however, this ethos was beginning to be replaced by a more self-seeking approach on the part of both sectional groups and individuals who viewed public office more as a means of personal advancement than as a duty of public service,” Chambers concludes.

“The new brand of Fianna Fáil politicians ... were self-motivated, acquisitive and flamboyant.”

Of course, Charles Haughey epitomised those. He was married to the Taoiseach’s daughter, but even “Lemass seemed uncomfortable with his son-in-law,” according to Dr Whitaker.

He also had a rather prickly relationship with Haughey, whose “tenacity and ruthlessness” he admired with reservations.

After three years under Haughey, the annual balance of payments deficit had risen to £70m. This was the point at which Dr Whitaker decided to step down as Secretary of the Department, even though he was still only 52 years-old. He insists he “was not pushed.”

He saw George Colley’s budget of 1972 as a disastrous turning point in the country’s financial history.

For the first time in the history of the state the budget provided for a £28m current account deficit, which, Dr Whitaker warned, would lead to runaway annual increases in the deficit, which rose to £777m by 1977.

Of course, he was also highly critical of the “irrational optimism” behind the 1977 Fianna Fáil election manifesto, which he regarded as “a national disaster” that “smothered the economy in foreign debt.”

The book provides real insights into the role that Dr Whitaker played in our national development and thus exposes the glaring deficiencies in our knowledge and history of the part played by so many other prominent civil servants throughout the 20th century.

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