TK Whitaker: Ireland’s Unrevolutionary Revolutionary

TK Whitaker at the Dublin stock exchange in 1965

Revolutionaries do not tend to succeed in government do they? Can you think of any? Their skill set lends itself to leading the masses against something or giving orders for obedient soldiers to follow. Or as orators they give sparkling speeches as visionaries yet seem to know not how to deliver on them. By the 1950s Ireland had all the hallmarks of a state being led by aging revolutionaries. It was largely governed by men whose political capital lay in their past as young patriots of the Easter Rising or War of Independence. It was in a word: stagnant.
Even given the post-war injection of £150,000,000 in grants and loans the economy was showing little signs of life. By 1956 most observers agreed that the policy of nationalist economics which involved protected industries and isolation from Britain was broken. In the decade from 1950 almost half a million voted with their feet and left the country. The population was now almost a quarter of what it was on the eve of the famine.
Change was needed and change was delivered through the appointment of Thomas Kenneth (TK) Whitaker as Secretary to the Department of Finance in 1956. Though he initiated revolutionary changes, he was anything but a revolutionary. A cautious civil servant, he was educated by the Christian Brothers in County Down before studying at London University. At the age of 40 he was experienced enough to steady the ship but young enough to steer it in the right direction.
His main aim to was to provide productive and self-sustaining employment to combat the ills of emigration, unemployment and empty state coffers. His landmark document Economic Development in 1958 opened Irish doors to business and welcomed the World Bank who visited within months. Foreign investment quickly followed, attracted by the offers of subsidies and tax holidays. The state then followed a policy of increasing support of already successful agricultural sectors and strategic support for farmers. Membership to the European Economic Community (EEC) was submitted in 1961 and by 1965 the Anglo-Irish free trade area was created.

Time magazine cover showing Irish economic strength with Taoiseach Sean Lemass


Yet a culture cannot change overnight and if the reaction of the media and unions represented the people, then all was not well. Foreign business were described as, ‘alien institutions squeezing the lifeblood out of our shopkeepers who financed Sinn Fein ands other republican movements.’ You can’t please all of the people all of the time…
But it was plain to see that the Irish economy was transformed. During the 1960s the population grew by 100,000 (The first growth seen since 1844!) and the economy was proudly showing the fastest growth in western Europe. Business management and marketing companies were thriving while two thirds of exports went outside of the UK market. Investment in education led to participation rates in Irish secondary schools outperforming Britain. This outward looking attitude was also shown through Irish soldiers serving in their first UN mission in 1961 and a booming transatlantic tourist trade.
Not for the first time however economic warning signs were ignored and in 1973 the ill-prepared economy plunged into a dark recession. Coupled this with the conservative clutch of the Catholic church and it is clear that while progress was made, progression was not even close.
Yet the impact of TK Whitaker on not only the Irish economy from the late 1950 to the early 1970s but on the Irish nation is clear. His strategic and objective thinking also had a clear impact on those who would nurture the Celtic Tiger towards the end of the century.
Indeed in a 2001 poll he leapfrogged Collins, de Valera, Griffiths and a score of other patriots to win the award of Irishman of the Century. 

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