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One of the key people in the making of modern Ireland turns 100 today

TK Whitaker was just 39 when he took on the challenge of leading a dark and depressed 1950s Ireland into a brighter future.

Image: David Whitaker

IF I TOLD you that one of the most important figures in charting the course of independent Ireland turns 100 today, would you know who I am talking about? Well, if you don’t know the name TK Whitaker, you should do and here’s why.

Dr TK Whitaker came on board as the Secretary of the Department of Finance at a time of economic crisis during the 1950s. The situation he faced as he took on this role at the young age of 39 was a country with high emigration (400,000 people left 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.

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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 media publications and government officials were questioning the viability of the state as an independent entity. After nearly 40 years of self-government, Ireland’s independence experiment looked like it was going to end in failure.

Luckily for Ireland, TK 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 Dr TK Whitaker marking the 50th anniversary of the ESRI, which he helped to found. Source: Leon Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Whitaker immediately 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 per cent annually, emigration fell, and there was a steady fall in unemployment. The turnaround in the Irish economy was so rapid that even international publications such as TIME Magazine in July 1963 published 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.

You might think after this achievement in turning around the economy, he would be happy to sit back and enjoy his success. However, there was another sacred cow that he wanted to slay and that was the Irish government’s approach towards Northern Ireland. Born in Rostrevor, Co Down, he always kept strong links with the North, even after 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 visiting Dublin and Taoiseach Sean Lemass (External Affairs Minister Frank Aiken is in the background) in 1965. TK Whitaker had brokered the groundbreaking first meeting between them at Stormont earlier that year. 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 were 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.

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.

About the author:

Dr David McCann  / Lecturer, Ulster University

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