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12 December 2016

We should all be congratulating the great Dr Ken Whitaker on reaching 100

Without this dedicated Irish public servant, our island would be a much worse place

Dr Ken Whitaker
Dr Ken Whitaker

Last week Thomas Kenneth ("Ken") Whitaker - a friend to all good people in Ireland, north and south - reached his 100th birthday. A public servant of exceptional ability, dedication, selflessness and influence, though he mostly worked behind the scenes, he is spoken of reverentially by those who know the history of modern Ireland.

In an RTE poll in 2001, viewers voted him ‘Irishman of the 20th Century’, an accolade he thoroughly deserves.

If there was any justice, Rostrevor, his birthplace, and Drogheda, where he spent his formative years, would be erecting statues to him.

Dr Whittaker’s integrity and patriotism as well as his startling intelligence and plain speaking won him admirers among decent politicians.

Only 40, but already the head of the Department of Finance, in 1957 he wrote a paper on economic development that said starkly that unless the country changed course, “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”.

And so, with the backing of Sean Lemass, later prime minister, the insular, protectionist Republic of Ireland — an economic basket case whose main export was its people — changed course and created a modern, successful economy through the encouragement of free trade and inward investment.

His genuine friendship with prime ministers Lemass and Captain Terence O’Neill resulted in the famous meeting in Stormont in 1965 that caused consternation to hardliners on both sides but began worthwhile inter-governmental dialogue that would prove invaluable during the bad times.

It was he also who persuaded senior politicians in the Republic that reunification of the island was unaffordable, that threats and violence were counter-productive, and that the only sane policy was to behave like good neighbours to Northern Ireland.

Dr Whittaker had been born in a united Ireland and hoped that in the long term it might be again achievable, but as Anne Chambers, his biographer, puts it, to Ken Whitaker “it was a smile, a handshake, a conversation, rather than flags, emblems or anthems, and most certainly not bricks or bullets, that offered the way to break down barriers and gradually build bridges”.

He was highly influential in achieving cross-border cooperation in areas such as transport and agriculture, which he hoped would replace “emotionally charged but vague and divisive ideological arguments which merely served to deepen division and hatred”.

He hated violence, which he first encountered in Drogheda, where the family moved to during the Civil War.

“One of my earliest memories of Drogheda,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir, “is watching as a young boy of six from a downstairs window a wild-eyed, terrified man running into the street with a revolver in his hand pursued by Free State soldiers.”

As the civil rights clashes began in 1968, he told a friend “that extremists on both sides are making all the running and this could lead to serious trouble and loss of life,” and focused on persuading politicians in the Republic to tone down the emotion and try not to make things worse.

It was Dr Whittaker who in 1969 wrote a speech for Taoiseach Jack Lynch — another trusted friend — which endorsed the principle of consent.

“The unity we seek,” said Lynch, “is not something forced but a free and genuine union of those living in Ireland based on mutual respect and tolerance”.

Dr Whitaker would also provide invaluable support to Lynch when he was challenged by a cabal in the Cabinet that wanted the Republic to support the IRA.

What makes his career so extraordinary is how far his influence extended beyond the confines of his various jobs.

For instance he had a powerful moderating effect on Northern Irish policy when at the Department of Finance, after 1969, as a prudent but imaginative Governor of the Central Bank, and in all his later incarnations, right up to and beyond the Good Friday Agreement.

From 1976, in what was theoretically retirement, he continued to take on a vast variety of jobs that included two periods as a Senator and innumerable bodies dealing with everything from wild salmon to constitutional reform.

He is one of the best friends Northern Ireland ever had.

Arlene Foster should send him a belated birthday card.

Martin McGuinness won’t.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards