A centurion and why we need legions more like him

12 Dec 2016

Now 100, TK Whitaker designed the modern Ireland just in time. Now a new generation needs to do the same. Image: David Renton/Shutterstock

When all else had failed and Ireland was at its bleakest, TK Whitaker drew up plans for a new Ireland. As seismic political changes threaten to sweep the world, we need a new generation of people like him, writes John Kennedy.

Last week, TK Whitaker turned 100. I never knew who he was until I was in my 20s and was trying to figure out this glorious conundrum of a country that can both punch above its weight and in the same breadth, tear itself apart.

Whitaker has been described as “the greatest living Irishman”, a greater hero to many than even Michael Collins and has received many more platitudes to count.

Ireland of the 1950s was a shell of a state. Hundreds of thousands of people had emigrated, isolationist or protectionist economic policies had failed disastrously and agricultural methods belonged to a previous century.

It was not the Ireland that was fought for in 1916. Instead of a brave new dynamic young country that shook off the yoke of an emerging empire, Ireland slipped backwards, and a void emerged that was opportunistically filled by the Catholic Church. This was to such a degree that Ireland was a superstitious backwater on the edge of Europe and not at the centre of the world as it is today.

Tough medicine

For the first 40 years of its being, the Free State, and subsequently the Republic of Ireland, was in a state of paralysis. The country then would appear alien to the confident, modern young Europeans of today who enjoy a higher standard of living and cheap Ryanair flights.

Neutrality during World War II meant Ireland missed out on the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe.

Any attempt to rectify the situation was deemed unpatriotic. Politicians then, as they are now, were more concerned about their own patch and simmering post-Civil War tensions.

Into the breach strode a purposeful group of young civil servants led by a 39-year-old department secretary called TK Whitaker. They studied the global economy, went on fact-finding missions and recommended Ireland join the International Monetary Fund.

Crucially Whitaker, born just months after the Rising of 1916, advocated free trade and an end to protectionism, which would have been anathema to the de Valera and Lemass-run state of the time.

They advocated tough medicine, otherwise the state of Ireland would not survive.

A document was produced simply called ‘Economic Development’ and it spoke to ordinary citizens as much as politicians.

To Whitaker’s surprise, Lemass, the architect of protectionism, embraced the new plan and modern Ireland was born.

What followed was a move to a more open economy and eventually, free education based on a realisation that Ireland’s best raw material was its people. This led to a swing in the social dynamic, improved social mobility and a rise in living standards enjoyed to this day.

Whitaker and his team did what was expected of them out of a sense of duty and responsibility. They sought no recompense or positions of power.

We need more like him

Every generation suffers a conceit that they had it harder than the generations that came later. Growing up in the 1980s, I remember all too well the dinner table conversations about making ends meet, the goodbyes people still made to family members who were emigrating possibly forever and Bobby Sands graffiti on walls of council estates.

But, if you grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s in Ireland, you enjoyed free education and the effects of Whitaker and Lemass’s strategy were still taking form.

In the 80s and 90s, particularly, the open economy strategy led to massive inward investment trend as Apple, Intel, Microsoft, IBM and many others established bases here.

There was a sense of momentum.

The lamentable truth is that the fruits of the strategy were destroyed by the 2008 downturn caused by property greed, inflated optimism and an overheated economy.

The austerity that followed has dismantled, if not stunted, the direction the country could have, and should have headed.

There are books, plays and movies yet to be written about what young eyes had to witness at the dinner table in the grim days of 2008, 2009 and 2010 – lives were destroyed and lost. And yet, there is a lot more grieving and healing to be done. In a bitter twist, this is and always will be the kernel of good Irish literature.

I suffer no conceit about having it tougher than kids of those recent years because by comparison, life, even with its challenges in previous decades, was idyllic by comparison. We did not have the internet of smartphones but there was a sense of direction and all young people in Ireland in the 80s and 90s felt assured by their education and what we had in common: we were all in this together.

Where is that feeling today? Where is that sense of united purpose when all we hear about is Croke Park agreements and public servants wanting their dues?

Yes, the multinational tech giants are continuing to invest here. The economy seems to be kicking in. But we still have a basket case of a health system. The free education privileges of previous generations when it comes to third level are far from free.

The only regret I have for Whitaker is he has lived to see the dismantling of many parts of a grand strategy that actually worked.

But now there are darker and more frightening forces beyond the control of Ireland.

The new president-elect of the United States is not going to be a friend of multinationals that invest outside the US.

A right wing shroud is descending over Europe.

The UK, the country that invited Ireland to join the EEC (now EU) in 1973, is leaving the EU.

Thanks to the European Commission tax ruling against Apple, one of the few levers Ireland has to ensure inward investment, our 12.5pc corporate tax rate is under attack.

Politicians will come and go. But civil servants come in many shapes and sizes. There are departmental giants like Whitaker in his day and then there are the ordinary women and men who are on the front lines like nurses, Gardaí, teachers, bus drivers and more.

Lamentably, the effects of austerity have succeeded in dividing rather than uniting us, at at time when we need clear minds the most. It is too easy to criticise public servants for wanting more pay, but we also need to remember that there are many in the lower echelons who have borne far more of the brunt of austerity proportionately than others.

Now we need real leaders, not just amongst politicians, but clear-minded, visionary patriots who will decide the future.

The tectonic plates underpinning the global economy are going to shift seismically.

Everything we have taken for granted could be removed at the stroke of a pen in Washington, Moscow or Brussels.

We need more TK Whitakers to design the future. We need legions like him.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years