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Column: Today's officials should look to TK Whitaker’s approach as they consider economic problems

TK Whitaker’s approach to public service shows that ‘thinking outside the box’ can be invaluable in solving political, social and economic issues – he remains one of the most remarkable figures of Irish public life, writes David McCann.

Dr David McCann Lecturer, Ulster University

RECENTLY I WAS asked at a seminar to describe the most remarkable person that I have encountered throughout my research in Irish politics. My answer is always the same: TK Whitaker.

When I conducted interviews with him for my research I could not help but be impressed as he regaled me with the many significant events in Irish history which he had a direct hand in. Events that I had only read about suddenly came to life as he recalled important moments such as the ground-breaking summit between Seán Lemass and Terence O’Neill in 1965.

Yet how much does the general public really know about this man who, as Secretary of the Department of Finance, ushered in huge changes in the economy and relations with Northern Ireland?

Born in Rostrevor, Co Down, in 1916, TK Whitaker moved to the town of Drogheda just after partition. While completing a scholarship exam for UCD in 1934, Whitaker would make a fateful decision by opting to enter the civil service instead. He quickly rose up the ranks entering the Department of Finance in 1938 as an administrative officer, eventually becoming the department secretary in 1956.

The situation was grim

The situation that greeted Whitaker as he took on his new role was grim. Between 1951 and 1961 over 400,000 people had left the country bringing the population of the state down to just 3 million. Combined with rising unemployment and low growth this brought the viability of the Irish state as an independent entity into question. Whitaker argued forcefully in memos to the Minister for Finance, Jim Ryan, that if the economic situation was not corrected quickly that the government should consider reincorporation to the United Kingdom.

Motivated by a cartoon in the satirical magazine Dublin Opinion which characterized Ireland as a beggar asking a fortune teller “have I a future?”, Whitaker set to work producing an economic plan that argued for a fundamental shift in Ireland’s economic policies. Protectionism was to be phased out and foreign investment encouraged. What was most remarkable about this task was that it was not encouraged or had any massive involvement from the government of the day.

Whitaker was successful in winning over Seán Lemass to the concept of free trade and facing down the more conservative elements within the Irish civil service who were skeptical about ending free trade.

So what was the result of the Whitaker plan? Over time it yielded a growth rate of 4 per cent per annum, a steady fall in emigration and even managed to gain so much international attention that it led to Seán Lemass becoming the first Taoiseach to be profiled on the front cover of TIME magazine in July 1963, lauding Ireland’s economic revival. Not only had Whitaker succeeded in getting Ireland’s economy back on track, he put an end to the notion that Ireland couldn’t function as an independent entity.

Building good relations in Northern Ireland

What is most remarkable about Whitaker was that he was not content just focusing on solving Ireland’s economic problems. Throughout his time in the civil service Whitaker had sought to build up good relations with his counterparts in Northern Ireland. While he would attend meetings of the IMF he would become friendly with the Unionist minister and later Prime Minister Terence O’Neill.

Using his relationship with O’Neill, Whitaker conveyed Lemass’s strong desire to hold a meeting with him. We have to remember that while a meeting like this would be trivial by today’s standards, in the early ’60s a near cold war atmosphere existed between the two Irish states. For the Irish government, Northern Ireland was an illegitimate entity and for Unionists, the southern government could not be dealt with so long as it pursued a policy of Irish unity.

All that changed on 14th January 1965, when Lemass and Whitaker travelled to Belfast to meet O’Neill. This summit ushered in a new period of economic co-operation between the two states as joint initiatives in electricity, tourism and transport were launched. Whitaker helped make all of this happen through his quiet and determined work behind the scenes. But his most important role in helping draft Northern Ireland policy was still to come.

The Troubles

In August 1969, the outbreak of the Troubles sent the Irish government into a state of panic with daily crisis meetings and division over how best to respond to the sectarian violence. The Taoiseach, Jack Lynch, faced some of his most prominent ministers advocating armed intervention in Northern Ireland, while others wanted to pursue the matter with the British government and the United Nations.

Isolated and unsure of his position Lynch turned to Whitaker for advice on what to do. Whitaker advised Lynch not to ‘cash in on political emotionalism’ at a time of crisis. He believed that a moderate approach should be followed that could demonstrate to Northern Unionists that they had nothing to fear from a united Ireland. These words of caution were exactly what Lynch wanted and needed to hear. Whitaker helped reinforce Lynch’s moderate instincts as he faced an increasingly fractious cabinet.

Throughout his entire time as a civil servant, Whitaker did not just pass through; he made a real difference from the economy to Northern Ireland. He was dynamic in an institution that is typically conservative in thinking. As officials today attempt to tackle similar problems they could do well to look at TK Whitaker’s approach to public service and perhaps realise that thinking outside the box is not always a bad thing.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for click here.

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About the author:

Dr David McCann  / Lecturer, Ulster University

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