Civil servant TK Whitaker had public interest at heart always

TK Whitaker. Picture: Aengus McMahon

As TK Whitaker celebrates his 100th birthday this week, Ryle Dwyer examines his phenomenal contribution to Irish life and politics

IN 2001 RTÉ viewers selected TK Whitaker as “Irishman of the century”, ahead of the likes of Michael Collins, Éamon de Valera, and Seán Lemass. This was a magnificent tribute to the man who played a pivotal role in our country’s economic development during the latter half of the 20th century.

Whitaker belonged to the generation of civil servants recruited in the 1930s. Born in Rostrevor, Co Down, where his father was assistant manager of a factory, Thomas Kenneth “Ken” Whitaker grew up in Drogheda from the age of six.

An ambitious young man, he continued his education after entering the civil service as an 18-year-old, earning a BA by correspondence from the University of London in 1938. He impressed the long-time secretary of the Department of Finance, JJ McElligott, who appointed him in 1945 to advise new minister Frank Aiken.

Aiken had strong unconventional ideas on finance. “As a junior office, I was assigned to act as his personal adviser, no doubt in the hope of diverting him from the extremes of heterodoxy,” recalled Whitaker.

It was unprecedented for a 28-year-old assistant principal officer to have such access to the minister. Many might have considered Whitaker’s task a hopeless endeavor because Aiken was not very articulate and was, thus, not renowned for his intelligence. Yet the pair got on very well.

“Keeping a few steps ahead of a ceaselessly inquisitive minister by attentive reading of economic and banking journals was, for me, excellent training,” said Whitaker. The minister “was prepared to listen but was not easily daunted or persuaded. It was best to acknowledge first the good points of any idea he put forward and introduce the caveats only tentatively and gradually. He pondered those in silence for extended periods trying to neutralise them.”

Encouraged by Aiken, Whitaker went on to earn a master’s degree in economics from the university as an external student in 1952. Notwithstanding his good relationship with Aiken, Whitaker was recognised as his own man, above party politics. Gerard Sweetman of Fine Gael, the finance minister in the first national coalition, appointed Whitaker permanent secretary of the Department of Finance in May 1956 over the heads of more senior people while he was only 39 years old.

In this new post, Whitaker initiated dramatic change by insisting the department’s primary role be economic development rather than just balancing the books. The economy was in deep trouble. Between 1949 and 1955, Ireland’s GNP increased by just 10.5%, compared to 36.5% in the rest of Europe. Some 60,000 Irish people emigrated in 1957, but unemployment was still among the highest in Europe.

A new start was obviously needed when Fianna Fáil returned to power in 1957. “Without a sound and progressive economy, political independence would be a crumbling façade,” Whitaker bluntly warned Jim Ryan, the new Fianna Fáil finance minister on his first day in office, March 21, 1957. Unless there were new policies, he warned, “it would be better to make an immediate move towards reincorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent”.

Protectionism — which had been a fundamental aspect of every Fianna Fáil government’s policy since 1932 — was condemning “the people to a lower standard of living than the rest of Europe”, contended Whitaker. Adopting free trade as a new approach meant abandoning the protectionist policy advocated for over 20 years by Lemass, who indeed gave his full backing to Whitaker.

“The chief significance, I think, of what was done was, first, to free the government of the day from the shackles of outmoded self-sufficiency policies and orient them fully towards free trade,” explained Whitaker later. By demonstrating that “dynamic progress” could be made in agriculture, fisheries and tourism, they were able to “regenerate confidence in our ability to manage our affairs successfully”.

Whitaker was openly credited as the inspiration and driving force of the programme for economic expansion in 1958. It was a conscious decision on the part of senior members of the government to refer to the initiative as the Whitaker Plan. Civil servants usually remained in the background, keeping a low profile, but taoiseach Éamon de Valera, tánaiste Seán Lemass, and finance minister Jim Ryan all agreed Whitaker should be openly credited.

“It was a deliberate decision, part of our effort to get economic development away from party political tags,” Lemass later explained. By doing so, the plan was elevated above of politics, and this helped to enlist broad support.

It was Whitaker who essentially steered the economic recovery associated with the Lemass years, and he also played a pivotal role in normalising relations between Dublin and Belfast. While travelling to meetings of the IMF, he befriended Stormont’s finance minister, Terence O’Neill, who became prime minister of Northern Ireland in 1963. Whitaker then managed to set up the first North-South summit meeting between O’Neill and Lemass.

While Whitaker got on well with Lemass, he had difficulties with some younger members of the cabinet, especially Charles Haughey, Neil Blaney, and Donogh O’Malley, who engaged in unauthorised extravagance. O’Malley’s “free education” initiative was a brilliant political move, but it had its own financial consequences.

“To describe this scheme as ‘free’ is misleading,” noted Whitaker. “It was a good idea” because it boosted student numbers by 38% in just two years. But it should not have been announced without the approval of the Department of Finance.

Whitaker turned to the taoiseach for support. “While he did not expressly say so, I deduced from what he said (and the smile on his face) that he had personally authorised Donogh O’Malley to make this announcement,” noted Whitaker.

Although the taoiseach was Haughey’s father-in-law, Whitaker detected a certain strain between them. “Lemass seemed uncomfortable with his son-in-law,” noted Whitaker. “Their relationship never became warm or genial. I suspect that Mrs Haughey had a lot to do to keep things right between them.”

Any element of family restraint seemed to vanish after Jack Lynch replaced Lemass as taoiseach in November 1966. Haughey became finance minister. Whitaker had worked directly with six finance ministers — Frank Aiken, Seán MacEntee, Gerard Sweetman, James Ryan, Jack Lynch, and Charles Haughey. He developed a good rapport with the first five, but there was no warmth in his relationship with Haughey, whose autocratic ministerial sensitivities were affronted by the strong-willed secretary speaking his mind.

Haughey was regarded “as thrusting, ambitious, ruthless, and able”, according to Whitaker. “You had to admire his tenacity and ruthlessness.”

While Haughey was finance minister in 1969, Whitaker retired as secretary of the department even though he was still only 52. He “was not pushed”, he said. He just quit “having accomplished all he could at finance”. Working productively with Haughey was likely to be a real problem, as the minister was already exceeding the bounds of prudent expenditure. Therein lay the seeds of many of our more recent economic problems.

“But it was to be Haughey’s involvement in the emerging crisis in Northern Ireland that, more than anything else polarised the differences between the two men,” according to Whitaker’s biographer, Anne Chambers.

Unlike Whitaker, who strongly opposed violence on moral grounds, Haughey had no moral objection to using force to end partition. Whitaker continued as a major adviser to Jack Lynch on the Northern crisis, and the taoiseach possibly instigated a letter to Haughey, outlining the best way to deal with the North.

“Do nothing to inflame situation further, but aim to impress and encourage the moderates on both sides, Catholic and Protestant,” Whitaker advised Haughey on April 21, 1969.

“Avoid playing into the hands of extremists who are manipulating the civil rights movement and who wish to stir up trouble and disorder.”

Haughey ignored this advice in the lead-up to the arms crisis. It was just another instance in which ignoring Whitaker’s sound advice was to have disastrous consequences.

On being returned to power for the final time in 1977, Lynch appointed Whitaker to the Seanad, and Garret FitzGerald reappointed him in 1981. That was bipartisan recognition of Ken Whitaker — a man who always acted in the public interest.


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