Dr Whitaker, who has died a month after he celebrated his 100th birthday, is revered as the architect of modern Ireland and was selected through a public poll, in 2001, as the Irish person of the last century.
That he, a civil servant, won that accolade, despite the claims of revolutionary leaders and those who established our parliamentary system, recognises how his 1958 Economic Development began the process that changed this country from what it was — something like Enver Hoxha’s Albania; almost as poor, but greener, with more rain, hurling, autocratic religious leaders, and pitiless emigration — to something that can be recognised as the catalyst for today’s Ireland. That vote, which ignored those celebrated with such fervour in the year just passed, suggests we are not as convinced by the fantasies of revolution as we pretend.
Dr Whitaker, a conservative revolutionary, realised, in the 1950s, that the mythology of Gaelic Ireland celebrated in the early decades of independence had become an impediment to the development of our society and our economy. Not only had he realised this, but he also had the courage to express it. In March, 1957 he wrote to an incoming finance minister and warned that our political independence would become a “crumbling facade”, unless we could develop and sustain an economy. It is one of the tragedies of Ireland that, if you exchange the phrase “crumbling facade” for “economic sovereignty”, that warning was as relevant 50 years later as it was the day he wrote that chastening note.
Retrospection, much less reminiscence, is rarely an exact science or even a reliable witness. The exercise is far too easily seduced by the what-might-have-beens, the roads to the rainbow’s end left untaken. That is especially so in a small country emboldened by the arrival of the commercial giants of our age. Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, or any of the other behemoths reshaping today’s world, allow us a perspective that makes the Ireland of, say, 1930 to 1970 — Dr Whitaker’s Ireland — seem incomprehensible. This was a poor, limiting place for our forefathers, and an even colder place for those who chose not to conform to the rigidity of theocracy — religious or political. Opportunity, if it existed at all, was unequally shared. This was significant in Dr Whitaker’s life. He had hoped to be a medical doctor, but circumstances, as in so many cases, could not support that ambition, so he became a civil servant. Medicine’s loss was indeed Ireland’s gain.
Strangely, this life-defining inequality did not move Dr Whitaker, as it drove so many of his contemporaries, elsewhere. After all, he wanted to cut spending on social housing and hospitals to support “productive” development. He was determined to keep Irish wages below British levels, an ambition he did not realise. The empowering force of education was not promoted in his policy documents, either. He was appalled when, in 1968, Donogh O’Malley introduced free secondary education without consulting cabinet or his office. Would he really have been appalled that 63% of those who sat the Leaving Certificate at St Joseph’s, in Drogheda, where he was a pupil, would go on to third-level education? It is not possible to believe that he would have been, but it is one of the ironies of our time that this new level of opportunity means that many of those bright and able people who might have followed him into the civil service now hope to become partners at Goldman Sachs or, maybe, at one of the vulture funds that have so spectacularly benefitted from our recent difficulties. That the species so preferred by evolution should choose private reward over the virtues of public service is hardly surprising, but it may explain why a contemporary Dr Whitaker is so very unlikely. This is not a uniquely Irish phenomenon. All over the world, this opportunity-driven shift is reflected in the swing in power away from democratically elected governments to corporations or their billionaire owners.
It is unlikely, too, that a character as forceful, as challenging, as Dr Whitaker would be welcomed by today’s governments. His long-term planning would challenge the view that every lobby or outbreak of populism must be immediately placated. But, most of all, it is impossible to believe that his unwavering, inspiring sense of yes-we-can, yes-we-will patriotism would tolerate the off-the-cuff dysfunction that characterises the contemporary body politic. The confidence, the determination to improve things, to do the right thing, not to be cowed or diverted from an agreed objective, would seem too novel or just alien. Ken Whitaker was a great Irishman, and a patriot whose life and work resonate in every home and community in this country. How we could do with another.