Dr T. K. Whitaker – A public servant for all seasons


Anne Chambers, Author of: T.K. Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot


As we approach the centenary commemorations for the 1916 Rising, it is fitting to recall that 1916 also commemorates the centenary birth of another patriot, one who led a revolution of another kind. T. K. Whitaker’s life of public service parallels the history of the modern Irish state in whose economic, social, educational, political and cultural evolution he played a pivotal role.

I’m sure that the theme of this year’s MacGill Summer School ‘Ireland at the Crossroads’ might well bring a wry smile to Ken Whitaker’s face, having witnessed, averted and managed many such ‘cross roads’ throughout his long life of public service. Indeed many issues for discussion during the course of this week from ‘Unstable Governance’; ‘Upgrading the Technical and Managerial Skills of Politicians and Public Servants’; ‘The Future of Rural Ireland’; the formulation of a ‘Visionary National Development Plan’ – topics which, for Ken Whitaker, must surely resonate with the phrase ‘plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’. 

From a modest background in Rostrevor, County Down, at the age of six, Ken Whitaker’s family moved south to Drogheda where at the local Christian Brothers’ School his potential was first nurtured. Unable to pursue a preferred medical career, due to family financial constraints, in 1934 his footsteps led him to a career in the civil service, entering at the basic clerical officer grade. There his talent broke through predictive promotional convention and his record rise through the ranks, unequalled to this day, saw him at 39 years of age, become Secretary of the Department of Finance in 1956.

Against a background of economic stagnation, rampant emigration, lack of entrepreneurial spirit and an atmosphere of national despondency, motivated, as he modestly told me, by ‘a sense of anxiety and urgency about Ireland’s economic and political future and to make some positive contribution towards the betterment of the people,’ with the help of a band of willing young acolytes, he devised Economic Development, a blueprint for the economic regeneration of the country. Detailed, meticulous and practical, written in a style and in a language aimed at the ordinary citizen as much as politicians, Economic Development offered a radical remedy: the replacement of non-productive by productive capital expenditure, the introduction of free trade and an end to the isolation and protectionism of a previous era. It lowered the barriers Ireland had erected around itself and allowed the Irish people to look at their country, not from some mystic, historically idealized vantage point, but from eye level. But above all Economic Development offered hope and a way out of the economic quagmire in which Ireland and its people were fast bound. Economic Development and the First Programme for Economic Expansion, which derived from it, led to a period of unparalleled growth and optimism.

It is, perhaps, of interest to note that Economic Development was undertaken on a totally voluntary basis. Ken Whitaker and his team worked outside office hours on their own time, without any notion or expectation of monetary or promotional recompense but simply because it was needed to be done. In this age of entitlement, top-ups and bonuses, such civic-minded motivation seems, sadly, somehow anachronistic.

As Secretary of the Department of Finance, Ken Whitaker left his imprint in many relevant ways. In 1957, for example, his concern

       ‘that the variety and difficulty of administrative problems have so

       increased, and the tools and techniques for solving them have so

       developed, as to render administration more than ever a science’

led to the establishment of the Institute of Public Administration, to cater for the educational, research, development and training needs of the public sector. Today the Whitaker School of Government and Management, established in the IPA in his honour, ensures the continued pursuit of his objectives. His belief that public servants should be ‘well versed in economics’ led to the establishment of a university scholarship system in the public service. Unhappy with the quality of the economic courses available in the national universities in the 1950s, he forwarded his own ‘suggested syllabus’ much of which was subsequently adopted by the university authorities. In the course of compiling Economic Development he became aware of the shortcomings, in both quantity and quality, of economic research and analysis available to the public service. With a substantial grant, which he elicited from the Ford Foundation in America, the Economic and Social Research Institute was established in 1960. It is interesting to note that, in more recent times, he viewed what he considered to be a fall-off in numbers of suitably qualified and experienced staff in the Department of Finance and Central Bank, as a dangerous and worrying development, a situation that may well have contributed to Ireland’s economic and financial woes.

During the 1960s Ken Whitaker spearheaded Ireland’s convoluted path towards membership of the European Economic Community. A fervent supporter of Ireland’s participation in the Community, he led many delegations to European capitals, culminating with a private meeting in 1967 with the implacable Charles de Gaulle. His later unease that the idealism, realism, the community ethos, the élan vital that motivated the Community’s founding fathers and enshrined in the Treaty of Rome, were being sidelined by purely monetary considerations, has a certain resonance today, in view of current difficulties in Greece and elsewhere. Regarding the European Monetary System, it is also interesting to note Ken Whitaker’s less than enthusiastic reaction to Ireland’s abandonment of sterling in 1979, a move which he then, perhaps prophetically, described as being ‘a quixotic gesture’.

In 1969, Ken Whitaker was appointed Governor of the Central Bank at a critical time in the Bank’s development. On his appointment he gave notice that the Bank would be a ‘warning light’ and that it also might well have ‘unpalatable things’ to say in the future. Under his governorship, the Bank was transformed into a dynamic and effective institution, which he guided with a firm hand, through many economic and financial upheavals, at home and abroad, including two international oil crises in the 1970s. At the commencement of his period of office, he set out to preserve the autonomy of the Central Bank vis-a-vis the Government and the Commercial Banking Sector. Guided by    the provision of the 1942 Central Bank Act, which states

‘that what pertains to the control of credit, the constant and predominant aim should be the welfare of the people as a whole’

he successfully resisted efforts by the Department of Finance in 1970 to obtain statutory control over the exercise of credit policy in the economy; a move which, as he noted at the time, he ‘could not regard as being in the national interest.’ His words to the Minister for Finance at the time that ‘as a good Catholic I recognise the supreme authority of the Pope, but like a good bishop I claim jurisdiction within my own diocese,’ was followed by his ultimatum that if the Minister pursued the matter he would have no alternative but to resign as Governor, subsequently ensured that credit policy remained under Central Bank control.

Later, against the background of runaway inflation, balance of payments deficits, galloping current and capital expenditure and irrational pay awards, he enforced strict credit constraints over the Commercial Banks, restricting credit to productive purposes, with penalties for increases in gross lending to the over-heating property sector, as well as stemming the tide of external capital inflows. He resisted numerous Government attempts to fund budgetary concessions for non-productive purposes out of the coffers of the Central Bank and, both privately and in public through the Central Bank bulletins and in the press, gave forceful advice on economic and financial policy before it was enacted, thus preventing even greater excess. In the area of regulation and supervision, under Ken Whitaker’s governorship, the Central Bank’s control over the Irish Banks evolved and strengthened.

So how did it all go wrong? Why did that warning light fail to flash during the reckless credit-creating years of the Celtic Tiger? That malfunction, and the lack of, or the muted, ‘unpalatable words’ emanating from Dame Street, left him, as he admitted, perplexed and appalled. His choice of words to the new Governor, Patrick Honohan, that ‘I’m counting on you to save the country from national humiliation’ expressed the depth of his disappointment at the Bank’s perceived failure to discharge its obligations.

While Ken Whitaker is the first to acknowledge the immense changes that have since revolutionised the banking sector; the globalization of the industry, the impact of technology, the blurring of demarcation between financial institutions, the array of new investment and credit instruments, the onset of the borderless world of finance, it is difficult, however, to imagine that under his stewardship the warning light would not have been flashing in Dame Street long before the banking collapse occurred, or that he would have agreed to the disastrous decision to separate the supervisory and regulatory functions from the Central Bank. And during the so-called Celtic Tiger debacle, while a diminution in the Bank’s authority may well have been the result of European Central Bank intervention, the Irish Central Bank retained sufficient authority nationally to curb the doubling of house prices, the tripling of credit to the building industry and the sanctioning of loans up to and beyond 100% that occurred in the space of seven years. And with Ken Whitaker on the board of the ECB, M.Trichet would undoubtedly have been faced with an able and determined opponent to his policy of light-touch regulation, leading, as it did, to the inadequate and incompetent supervision of the Irish banking system and to Ireland’s subsequent ‘humiliation’.

In 1976, Ken Whitaker resigned from public office….or thought he did. But his services to the state, if anything, increased – from the Senate, where he is unique in being nominated by two major political parties while still speaking as an independent, to the Council of State and to his twenty-year Chancellorship of the National University of Ireland. On a voluntary basis, his wise counsel and ability steered a mind-boggling range of public commissions and committees, from penal reform, fishery policy, constitutional reform, to chairmanship of such bodies as Bord na Gaeilge, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, Royal Irish Academy, ESRI, Irish Folklore Commission, the Alliance Francaise, co-founder of the British-Irish Association and the Agency for Personal Service Overseas. The list numbers over forty. His contribution to national and international debate on a range of topics, from economics to salmon conservation, is evidenced by the hundreds of articles and speeches he compiled and delivered after his official retirement from public office right up to 2008.

But perhaps the most surprising aspect of his public service I discovered was the seminal behind-the-scenes role he played, between 1967 and 1997, in the search for peace in Northern Ireland. As Dr Maurice Hayes testified:

      ‘when everyone else, ministers, soldiers, civil servants, diplomats,

       were running around like headless chickens, Ken Whitaker stood

       out as a man for all seasons.’

Born in Northern Ireland, having a deep-set abhorrence of violence, the practical and common sense approach he brought to issues, previously clouded and impeded by emotional rhetoric, all mark his efforts. From initiating cross-border relationships as early as the 1950s with his civil service counterparts in the North on issues of mutual cross-border benefit, such as electricity supply, transport and the Erne waterway, to arranging the historic meeting between Sean Lemass and Captain Terence O’Neill in Stormont in January 1965, despite the terrible chaos of the following decades, he never gave up on the search for peace by constitutional means. In 1969, amidst the carnage, rioting and teargas, he wrote Jack Lynch’s famous ‘Tralee Speech’ that, publicly and for the first time, committed the Irish Government to a policy of reunification by the principle of consent. In 1970, he embarked on a behind-the-scenes dialogue with his opposite numbers in the public service and banking sectors in Northern Ireland and in the UK, from which, over the next two decades, emanated many policy documents which in turn informed Government policy on Northern Ireland, both in the Republic and in the UK. One of his policy documents, ‘Northern Ireland – A Possible Solution’ written in 1971 is, in reality, the Good Friday Agreement for slow learners, albeit with almost 30 years of ensuing violence, destruction and the tragic loss of over 3,700 lives in the meantime.

Another motivation in Ken’s life is his love and commitment to the Irish language. Fostered in his distant childhood in Drogheda and in Rannafast, here in the Donegal Gaeltacht, it still burns with the same intensity today. As in his approach to the national economy and to Northern Ireland, his approach to the language was also one of practical application. From initiating articles in the Irish language in the Department of Finance and in the Central Bank Bulletins, his advocacy of bilingualism as a national policy rather than the more impractical replacement of English by Irish, to his enlightened chairmanship of Bord na Gaelige, he left his mark. In a world exposed to such powerful and ever-changing technological advances and to the standardization and globalization of every aspect of life, including culture and language, as Ken Whitaker notes, government policy is no longer enough to ensure the survival of the Irish language. It also requires an acknowledgement by all of us that the language is worth saving and that we have the will as a community to ensure that it does.

One of the questions posed by this summer school: ‘Does Ireland Need a New Visionary Development Plan’, by another Ken Whitaker, in this year of 2015 can, in my opinion, no longer be addressed in a national context. Ireland’s economic future as part of the European Union is at the mercy of a global, imperialistic market economy. The calamitous policies that have driven, not only Ireland’s financial institutions, but those of more powerful countries, from reckless lending practices to the rigging of key bank interest rates, together with the detachment of finance and economics from any sense of societal responsibility or accountability, that has resulted in some 90% of the world’s wealth now resting in the hands of 10% of the population, are an anathema to Ken Whitaker’s generation. Today in a world where democratically elected governments and the people they represent appear as mere pawns, driven and controlled by financial markets, rating agencies and hedge funds, the question Ken Whitaker posed in the 1980s for Ireland has a relevance today in a global context:

     Is it little more than a fiction that Parliament and Government are

     sovereign? Does the State’s power rest precariously on day-by-day

     tolerance of its authority by powerful sectional interests?… Are

     Governments nowadays to be compared to the totally deaf Beethoven

     in his later years, just being allowed to go through the motions of

     conducting the orchestra while the real control is being exercised


Yes, the world indeed needs another revolutionary to turn the tide of greed and exploitation, to ensure that financial markets take some responsibility for the effect their policies have on the lives of ordinary citizens and taxpayers. And perhaps, the next Ken Whitaker might do well to be guided by the words that motivated his or her illustrious predecessor:

       There are values, moral and intellectual, which are higher than just

       mere economics. But it makes for a happier and more contented

       society if everybody has some basic share in wealth and well-being.

In Ken Whitaker, we are reminded of what is best in all of us, both as a society and as individual citizens. His very presence connects us with a time and with a society motivated by more caring and ethical principals. Now in his ninety-ninth year, his sense of hope, his generosity and good humour continue to burn brightly as each day brings a new interest and a new challenge. He remains sanguine about reputation, noting that

     ‘if you live long enough you would be either canonized or found out,

     the worst fate being found out after you are canonized.’!

During his lifetime, he has received many honours and tributes, national and international. One however stands out. During the course of my writing his biography, it became clear to me why the ordinary citizens of this country conferred the accolade ‘Irishman of the 20th Century’ on this former public servant. For, as the so-called icons of Irish society, one by one, fell from their pedestals, as tribunals, trials and inquiries reveal the shortcomings of those entrusted with the care of the country and the welfare of its people, as greed and corruption became the hallmarks of success in Irish society, as the two state institutions, over which he once presided, failed in their duty of care to prevent the loss of Ireland’s economic independence, consigning generations to a future of chronic indebtedness, the people’s choice of TK Whitaker as Irishman of the 20th Century, seems now, in 2015, more than ever vindicated.




Book Tickets 2022