A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
Who did Irish television viewers choose in 2001 as the Irishman of the Twentieth Century? The
answer might surprise. None of the Taoiseachs I mentioned in my last piece, nor our Poets. No sports
personalities or rock stars. It says a lot about the public’s ability to be discerning that they chose a
mild mannered former civil servant, Ken Whitaker, still happily with us at age ninety seven.
A strong candidate as the greatest living Irishman, he is now the subject of a compelling biography
by one of Ireland’s foremost biographers, Anne Chambers, which traces his rise in the bureaucratic
ranks, his spells as Secretary ( head) of the Department of Finance, and Governor of Ireland’s
Central Bank (Ireland’s Fed), and his long and very active retirement.
Particularly fascinating is the account of the close working and personal relationships between Ken
Whitaker and two Irish Taoiseachs, Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch and his involvement in the two
defining aspects of their rule, handling the economy and dealing with the crisis in Northern Ireland. In
both of these his role and influence were key, without ever stepping over the boundary lines between
dutiful civil servant and elected politician.
Ken Whitaker was no Sir Humphrey, the character in a 1980s BBC satirical comedy, a bureaucratic
mandarin who shamelessly manipulated his political master. “A brave idea, Minister,” Sir
Humphrey’s response to a ministerial initiative which was either suicidal politically or of which he
did not approve. Sir Humphrey also stood ready to advance the five reasons for doing nothing on any
Whitaker defined his approach as giving Ministers the best possible unbiased advice when policy was
being considered, and, once decided on, carrying out that policy to the best of his ability, regardless of
personal views. But this could require at times a need for harsh truths, none more so than in the
Ireland of 1957.
The period since 1945 had been disastrous for Ireland, economically and socially. Several appalling
governments had presided over stagnation that threatened to become terminal. Between 1949 and
1955 Ireland’s GNP increased by just 10.5%, compared to 36.5% in the rest of Europe, a Europe
recovering, incidentally, from war damage –something neutral Ireland had been spared. In 1957 2% of
the population – almost 60,000 people – emigrated. My own family was among them, as were some
people reading this column.
De Valera, re-elected Taoiseach at seventy five, seemed oblivious. He was on recent record as
stating that the restoration of the Irish language remained “Fianna Fail’s greatest national objective.”
Economically the country had languished behind high tariffs to protect a handful of inefficient
industries, while agriculture, exporting almost exclusively to Britain, was hamstrung by Britain’s
cheap food policies. This low risk and myopic approach might have been justified to get the country
through the Second World War without starving but by 1957 it had had its day. Irish politicians
seemed never to have heard of Keynes, which had at least the virtue that they did not try to borrow to
There was no lack of ideas. Ken Whitaker had plenty, He was just forty and already acknowledged as
Ireland’s most brilliant civil servant. His rise had been meteoric, culminating in his appointment as the
youngest ever Secretary of the Department of Finance, acquiring on the way a Master’s Degree in
Economics as well a considerable reputation among his peers internationally. His problem was that
politicians simply did not listen.
Then one did. Whitaker’s blunt analysis of the Irish Economy for the new government pulled no punches. “Policies of protectionism were condemning “the people to a lower standard of living than the rest of Europe.” Then the killer. Unless there were new policies, Whitaker wrote, “it would be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation in the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became even more apparent.”
Harsh truths indeed from a civil servant to his political masters, but words that needed to be said – and listened to. The strong man of the Cabinet, and heretofore leading advocate of protectionism, Tanaiste Sean Lemass, listened and threw his weight behind Whitaker.
The seminal “Economic Development “document, written by Whitaker and a small dedicated team, was approved by the Government during 1958. It was eventually published, unusually, under Whitaker’s name. There would be no doubting who had come up with the new ideas, but once they worked there was honour all round. The ideas could not have worked without political support, and to his credit Lemass provided it.
Whitaker’s ideas were incorporated in a modest economic programme for growth up to 1963 including export- oriented expansion, the encouragement of inward investment and movement towards free trade. The targets were achieved, critically boosting the country’s morale by showing that things could improve. Further programmes followed. The economy, and Ireland, was never the same again, with Lemass, Taoiseach after 1959, providing the muscle.
Chambers’ book is packed with fascinating detail on the political and economic events of the years that followed as Ireland grew economically and, with Ken Whitaker’s sure hand at the tiller, opened up to international organisations and towards the emerging EEC. He was never afraid to speak his mind and rapidly became the close confidant of both Lemass and his successor, Jack Lynch.
Ken, a Northerner from Rostrevor, had developed a close personal relationship with Northern Ireland Premier Terence O’Neill in the course of attending IMF meetings. This relationship led to the ground-breaking O’Neill Lemass meetings in 1965, which initiated dialogue between the two parts of Ireland and fostered the beginnings of official cross border cooperation. Whitaker thought long and hard about how relations between the two parts of the island might be improved.
This stood him – and Jack Lynch, and Ireland – in good stead when O’Neill’s reforms collapsed and the North began to slide towards chaos. A passionate opponent of violence, he presented a thoughtful position paper to Lynch as early as November 1968 pointing clearly to the ruinous costs of any reunification and advocating a long term strategy of good
neighbourliness. In 1969 he moved to become Governor of the Central Bank at age 52, for reasons still unclear. What IS clear is that he and Charlie Haughey, his Minister, did not get on. We can only speculate.
He continued to provide counsel and advice to Jack Lynch, particularly in facing down Haughey, Blaney and co in 1970 – another reason for his country to thank him. And, for a generation, he provided considered and reasoned contributions to the search for peace. He became a senator. He continued to work on for decades in other areas of public service, chairing bodies including prison reform, the Irish language, Irish fisheries, and, at eighty, a constitutional review group. He retains a love for classical music.
His biography is well worth a read, capturing the man, and would make a good Christmas stocking filler. One chapter, “A Man for All Seasons” is clearly one affectionate image the author has of her subject.
Ken Whitaker was born in the Year of the Rising. It would be fitting if he were there to celebrate its centenary. No one deserves the Centenarian Bounty more.
N.B. I had just reviewed Anne Chambers’ book on Ken Whitaker for the Irish Independent. I had been confined to 850 words for the review, but felt that more should be written about an outstanding public servant at a time when there is so much denigration of the public service in Ireland and elsewhere. This does slightly more justice to the man.