Northern Ireland

TK Whitaker: 'Architect of modern Ireland' honoured at Dublin reception

TK Whitaker at the event to honour Image copyright Tony Kinlan
Image caption TK Whitaker played a significant role at a critical point in Irish history

He was a distinguished civil servant whose ideas helped to shape modern Ireland.

TK Whitaker is credited as an architect of much of the Republic of Ireland's economic policy.

He also played a significant role at a critical point in Irish history, helping to organise the first meeting of prime ministers in both parts of Ireland.

On Friday, the 98-year-old was honoured for his contribution to Ireland, north and south, at a reception in Dublin.

The event was organised by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), to express appreciation for Dr Whitaker's "immense contribution to the entire country".

In his roles as a top civil servant in the Irish Department of Finance, and later a governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, Dr Whitaker exercised huge influence over the development of the Republic of Ireland's economy from the mid-1950s until the late 1970s.


He was also a key adviser to several Irish prime ministers during and after the outbreak of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and is credited with encouraging a peaceful and cautious approach to the conflict north of the Irish border.

Thomas Kenneth Whitaker, known as Ken, was born in Rostrevor, County Down, in 1916.

His family moved to Drogheda, County Louth, when he was five and he joined the Irish civil service as a teenager, having achieved first place in the organisation's entrance exams.

He quickly rose through the ranks and by the relatively young age of 39 he was appointed secretary to the Irish Department of Finance.

At that time, 1955, the Irish economy was in depression and Dr Whitaker is credited with liberalising the Irish economy, steering the state towards free trade, competitive markets and the development of modern industries and services.

In 1965, he organised the unprecedented meeting between the then Prime Minister of Northern Ireland Terence O'Neil and his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, Seán Lemass.

As a key adviser to Irish prime ministers on Northern Ireland, the Rostrevor native encouraged the government to appeal to moderates on both sides of the political divide.

In 1968, he warned the Fianna Fáil party to seek Irish unity through negotiation, and said: "There is, in fact, no valid alternative to the policy of agreement in Ireland between Irishmen."


Ronan Fanning, professor emeritus of modern history at University College Dublin, said in the years to come, Dr Whitaker's thinking on Northern Ireland would come to command "general assent" in Irish politics.

Writing in the Irish Times, Prof Fanning said: "Without Whitaker the proponents of the use of force might have prevailed and this state would have become a very different place."

In 1969, Dr Whitaker became governor of the Central Bank of Ireland and over the next four years he played a key role in the Republic of Ireland's accession to Europe.

Addressing guests at Friday's reception, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said Dr Whitaker "lived and worked through tumultuous economic, political and social times but his record is one of always doing the right thing, having the tough conversations and maintaining the convictions that ensured he put the people and the country first.

"While TK Whitaker's fundamental contribution to the economy of the island and the prosperity that flowed from it is well documented and rightly recognised, it is his contribution to peace that also has a lasting legacy."

It is not the first time the former civil servant has been honoured for his long and distinguished public service career.

In 2001, he was voted Irishman of the 20th Century in a programme made by the Irish state broadcaster, RTÉ.

The following year he received the Greatest Living Irish Person award.