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TK Whitaker, public servant and patriot Back
TK (Ken) Whitaker, who died, at the age of 100, on January 9th, was the civil servant most closely associated with Ireland's open economic policies in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Born in Rostrevor, Co Down on 8 December 1916 Thomas Kenneth Whitaker's life continued to be associated with long service to the nation, following his career as a civil servant and economist.

First, as secretary of the Department of Finance, he authored a paper Economic Development in 1958, out of which grew the First Programme for Economic Expansion, which was instrumental in galvanising Ireland's economic policies in an open direction, decisively turning around the inward looking protectionist policies, which dominated Irish economic policy from the 1920s, and which sought to create a self sufficient tariff-protected economy.
TK Whitaker, photographed in 2014, aged 97. (Photo copyright: The Irish Times).

He became Governor of the Central Bank on March 3rd 1969. As Governor of the Central Bank subsequently he was associated with the development of robust credit policies, and the development of independent money market structures which later facilitated the ability of the Irish Government to establish an independent Irish pound in the context of the emergent European Monetary System in the 1980s, a move, when it happened, that he personally expressed ambivalence about.

In his 7 year career as Governor of the Central Bank Dr Whitaker presided over the effective emergence of a modern central banking and monetary policy framework in the Republic. When he stood down from the Bank in 29th February 1976 after a 7 year term of office that began in February 1969 as the key developments in this Central Bank chronology illustrate the Bank had developed a monetary policy framework that saw the temporary establishment of exchange controls in the early 1970s, a Licencing and Supervision regime for private banks (1971), which was robustly enforced under Dr Whitaker, as seen with the Bank's intervention in applying to the High Court to wind up Irish Trust Bank and appoint a liquidator in February 1976, and overall credit policy targets, which ensured strict limits on the ability of banks to create credit.

He subsequently was appointed as a senator, where he used the platform of the Upper House in the Senate, where he spoke regularly on the economy and Northern Ireland, a matter that he maintained a key interest in having played a role in setting up the historic cross-border meetings in 1965 between the Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, and the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, Terence O’Neill, and in 1967 between Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Lord O’Neill.

He was born on December 8th, 1916, in Rostrevor, Co Down, where his father, Edward, was assistant manager of a linen mill. His mother, Jane O’Connor, his father’s second wife, came from Coolmeen, Co Clare. In 1922, the family moved to Drogheda, where his father worked in the Greenmount and Boyne Mill. They lived in a house called 'Paradise Cottage'. Ken attended the local Christian Brothers schools. He gained top marks in all subjects in his Leaving Certificate but university was not possible on his father’s pension. Instead, he joined the civil service after taking first place in the clerical officer examination.

His first posting was to the Civil Service Commission but he was promoted rapidly up the ranks, usually winning first place in the examinations. After just four years, he was promoted to junior administrative officer and joined what was then seen as an elite group in the Department of Finance. In 1941, he married Nora Fogarty, a fellow civil servant whom he had met in the Department of Education. He had also become interested in economics and studied for a degree in maths, Celtic studies and Latin by correspondence course with London University. He was awarded an honours BA in economics in 1941 and an MSc in 1952.

His rapid promotions marked him out. He clashed with the minister for external affairs in the 1948-51 Inter-Party Government, Sean MacBride, over the minister’s plans for the spending of Marshall Aid funds allocated to Ireland after the second World War under the Bretton Woods Agreement. Whitaker was summoned to appear before the Cabinet to defend his criticism.

When the post of secretary in the Department of Finance became vacant in 1956 on the retirement of JJ McElligott, Whitaker was appointed to replace him over the heads of more senior officials and at 39 became head of the civil service. He owed his promotion to the then Fine Gael minister for finance, Gerard Sweetman, whose speeches in the early 1950s reflected many of the perspectives that were to be contained in 'Economic Development' .

Governments seemed powerless to reverse the Irish economy’s malaise, as the population hit an historic low of under 3 milllion in the 1958 census, continuing the catastrophic decline in the population that had continued since the famine of the mid 1800s. This was at a time when Western countries had embarked on a rapid post war recovery. Whitaker, other officials in the Department of Finance like Patrick Lynch and economists such as his Co Down confrère, Dr Louden Ryan, saw the answer was to end the protectionism associated with Arthur Griffith, De Valera and indeed, in an Irish context, John Maynard Keynes.

When Fianna Fáil returned to office in 1957, Whitaker presented his new minister, Dr James Ryan, a paper called 'The Irish Economy',which said that if nothing were done it would “be better to make an immediate move towards re-incorporation into the United Kingdom rather than wait until our economic decadence became ever more apparent”.

Whitaker’s shock tactic worked and the government gave the go-ahead for joining the IMF and World Bank. He gathered a small team to work on a plan for economic expansion. By May 1958, the first draft of Economic Development went to cabinet which by July accepted it as government policy. It formed the basis for a White Paper published in November called the Programme for Economic Expansion. The earlier document, also called the 'Grey Book' from its cover, was also published, naming Whitaker as the author, an unprecedented action in the civil service.

Both documents were widely welcomed. Whitaker himself describes them as a “farewell to the old outmoded ideas for economic and social progress. Self-sufficiency was abandoned and to over-simplify a little, the new programme put grass before grain and, on the industrial side, put export-orientated expansion, even under foreign ownership, before dependence on protected domestic industry, lacking adequate enterprise and skill.”

The success of the First and Second Programmes for Economic Development was underscored by the introductory words of the "Third Programme" published in February1969: "Ten years have passed since the Government published their first programme for economic expansion. In that period the nation has made substantial advances in material prosperity. The gross national product in real terms (the volume of goods and services produced each year by the nation) has during those ten years grown by nearly 4% a year - three times as fast as during the preceding decade and nearly four times as fast as in the years leading up to the Second World War."

In spite of his age, Whitaker’s contribution to Irish life continued, in the spirit of civil and public service that marked his life. In 2002 he was voted ‘Irishman of the 20th Century’ by viewers of the state TV channel, RTE. A year later he was awarded the ESB/Rehab ‘Greatest Living Irish Person’ award.
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