TK Whittaker dies…

Arguably the most significant northerner to have shaped the southern state, TK Whittaker, has died. Fintan O’Toole writes:

TK Whitaker was the greatest of Ireland’s conservative revolutionaries. He wanted things to stay as they were and, in a culture ravaged by mass emigration, people to stay where they were.

He grasped the great paradox of his time: that Ireland could not be stabilised without radical change. He did not imagine just how deep the transformation would be. But he had the intellectual authority, the political skill and the quiet charisma to force a sclerotic state to alter the way it thought about itself.

It is emigration, more than anything else, that explains TK Whitaker. Only two European countries experienced a fall in population in the 1950s. One was East Germany, from which people were fleeing to the west.

The other was Ireland, from which more people were emigrating each year than were leaving East Germany. The East Germans responded by putting up the Berlin Wall. Ireland, thanks in large measure to Whitaker, responded by taking down the economic walls behind which it had carried out a failed experiment in protected development.

In both cases, the pressure for action was the same – the fear that the state would not survive.

As Whitaker put it in Economic Development, there was a “vicious circle . . . of increasing migration, resulting in a small domestic market depleted of initiative and skill and a reduced incentive . . . to undertake and organise the productive enterprises which alone can provide increased employment opportunities.”

But there was also, as there would be again after the crash of 2008, a phenomenon that was in some ways even more disturbing: men and women actually resigning secure white-collar jobs to emigrate, especially to Canada and the United States.

Even people who had choices were choosing to leave. This in turn pointed to a much larger crisis of confidence: there was no real sense that governments or the State as a whole could do anything to stop the decline.

When, in 1956, the Catholic hierarchy declared a day of prayer for emigrants, it seemed as good a plan as any.

In the 1957 general election, the triumphant Fianna Fáil leader Éamon de Valera pledged that economic policy would “try to continue on the path they had trodden before” with the goal of becoming “as self-contained as possible”.

The irony that a self-contained economy could not contain its own population was apparently lost on him.

And just last month, Anne Chamber’s noted:

Between 1967 and 1997, he played a behind-the-scenes role in the search for peace in Northern Ireland.

As far back as the 1950s, he initiated cross-border relationships with his opposite numbers in the Northern Ireland administration and in 1965 arranged the historic meeting between Sean Lemass and Captain Terence O’Neill.

In 1969 he wrote Jack Lynch’s famous Tralee Speech which, for the first time, committed the Irish Government to a policy of reunification by the principle of consent. In the 1970s he embarked on a series of meetings with contacts in the public service and banking sectors in Northern Ireland and in the UK from which many policy documents emanated which, in turn, informed government policy both in the Republic and in the UK.

One of his own policy documents, Northern Ireland – A Possible Solution, which he wrote in 1971 is, in reality, the basis of the Good Friday Agreement almost 30 years later.

It was Whitaker who organised the north south meeting between Terrence O’Neill and Sean Lemass in 1966.
But his greatest legacy was his in his ascent at 39 ten years earlier to the role of Secretary General working to Sean Lemass in setting the Republic 0n the modernising and outward course it’s own today.  Few public servants have had such a degree of influence over a nation’s development.
He was born on December 8th, 1916, in Rostrevor, Co Down, but raised and educated in Drogheda. Died in Dublin.