President is presented with the Inaugural TK Whitaker Award

Thu 15th Dec, 2016 | 19:00
location: Convention Centre, Dublin

Convention Centre, Dublin

Thursday, 15th December, 2016

Speech on accepting the Inaugural T.K. Whitaker Award

42nd Business and Finance Awards Ceremony, Convention Centre, Dublin, 15 December 2016

T.K. Whitakers contributions sought to achieve an Ireland that would be a secure place for all its citizens; a land of peace, social and economic security, and cultural flourishing.

A Airí
A Shoilsí, a Áionna Uaisle,
A cháirde Gael,
Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,

Is mór an pléisiúir dom a bheith in bhur dteannta anocht ar ceann de na hócáidí is mó le rá do lucht gnó agus airgeadais na hÉireann.

[It is a pleasure to join you this evening on what has become a prestigious event for Ireland’s business and financial community. May I extend my sincere congratulations and my best wishes to all of those who have been distinguished tonight for their contribution to Ireland’s economic and social welfare.]

It is for me a great honour to receive this inaugural T.K. Whitaker Award – an honour I accept with an acute awareness of the extraordinary service the man whose name we celebrate tonight has rendered to the public good of this country. Thomas Kenneth Whitaker’s hundredth birthday, last week, has afforded a grateful Irish people an opportunity to reflect on the outstanding contribution he has made to so many aspects of Irish life, social, economic, political, cultural, and ecological. 

I am delighted that this occasion gives me the opportunity to publicly pay tribute to Dr. T. K. Whitaker who has been described by a former Taoiseach “as the most outstanding public servant of independent Ireland in the twentieth century”.   His contributions and significant achievements sought to achieve an Ireland that would be a secure place for all its citizens; a land of peace, social and economic security, and cultural flourishing.  In outlining his vision, perhaps he put it best himself, indeed with his characteristic cogency and humanity:

“Let us remember that we are not seeking economic progress for purely materialistic reasons but because it makes possible relief of hardship and want, the establishment of a better social order, the raising of human dignity, and, eventually, the participation of all who are born in Ireland in the benefits, moral and cultural, as well as material, of spending their lives and bringing up their families in Ireland.”

Ach is mian liom iomláine saol T.K. Whitaker a cheiliúradh anocht - saol a chaith sé ag obair chun leasa mhuintir na hÉireann, saol a d'feabhsaigh sé trína ghrá do gach caile rud Éireannach: ár dteanga, ár bhfillíocht, ár ndúlra, ár n-aibhneacha, ar gcréachtaí agus ár n-éachtaí.

[But tonight it is to the fullness of T.K. Whitaker’s life that I wish to pay a special tribute – a life spent in the service of the general welfare of all Irish citizens, and a life enhanced by a deep love of everything Irish: our ancient language and our poetry, our nature and our rivers, our wounds and our feats.]

From his birth in the year of the Easter Rising of 1916, the shift he spearheaded, the policy move from the protectionism and self-sufficient outlook of the young Republic towards free trade and European integration, from years of violence in Northern Ireland down to the Good Friday agreement, the life of T.K. Whitaker is one that mirrors the journey of the modern Irish state on its road to maturity. More than that, it is a life that has engaged with almost every crucial aspect of change in Ireland’s twentieth century history, and a life that offers a wellspring of inspiration to all of us today.

Indeed, all of us cannot but be inspired by the devotion to the public good, the unflinching integrity, the utmost intellectual rigour, the effectiveness, the constructive voluntarism, but also the deeply optimistic humanism and the unstinting generosity which have imbued all of T.K. Whitaker’s endeavours on behalf of the Irish people. 

These qualities are the hallmark of his actions in the three fields that are most emblematic of his legacy to us, i.e., social and economic reform, the peace process in Northern Ireland, and the sustenance of the Irish language. Ken Whitaker applied those very same skills of the mind and heart to all of his other undertakings in the public world, be it as Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, as Chairman of the Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, during his two terms as a public representative in Seanad Éireann, or, following riots at Mountjoy Jail in 1984, when he chaired a wide-ranging inquiry into the Irish penal system.

Even his all-consuming past time, salmon fishing, was turned by Ken Whitaker into something enduring for all of us. He who had formed an early interest in the king of fish during his boyhood years in Drogheda, where he watched the Boyne fishermen in their ancient hide-covered willow coracles shoot their nets and haul their catch onto the bank, was instrumental, many decades later, in having the Salmon Research Centre in Newport incorporated in the new   National Marine Institute, which provides such valuable scientific advice for the conservation and regeneration of fish stocks.

Indeed, Ken Whitaker shared all the great qualities of a generation of Irish civil servants who guided the young state through its difficult infancy: a sense of collective purpose and an awareness of one’s public duty.   The men from which T.K. Whitaker learnt his craft as a civil servant, and the enthusiastic younger colleagues with whom he worked on his iconic report, Economic Development, published in 1958, were all people who were animated by what Dr. Whitaker described as “a type of secular patriotism”, a desire “to be part of something that might bring about a better society.”

Another inspiring feature of Ken Whitaker’s ethos is the integrity and fierce independence of thinking he brought to his work. He conceived of the role of the civil servant as one that should provide unbiased, and, where necessary, even critical, advice to the government. Ken Whitaker’s commitment to his public duty was thus, throughout his career, remarkably devoid of subservience to power, political partisanship, or amenability to sectional interests.

His advice was always rooted in rigorous and state-of-the-art research. Importantly, as secretary of the Department of Finance from 1946 to 1969, Ken Whitaker shepherded the transition between the stern economic orthodoxy of his elders to the more expansionary doctrine being promoted by a new generation of economists in the post-war years. He established a new division within his Department’s finance division that would produce much needed economic and statistical data to inform policy choices. This new section became Dr. Whitaker’s laboratory for the exploration of new, innovative ideas for economic and social development.  All of this institutional change required an inclusive discourse.

T.K. Whitaker’s introduction of the notion of comprehensive economic planning to Ireland was at a time when many still rejected planification as a feature of communistic regimes. Eager to provide sound empirical foundations to economic policy, Ken Whitaker did not just build up research capacity within the Department of Finance and the Central Bank. He was also instrumental in establishing a range of independent research bodies, at arm’s length from government, such as the ESRI and NESC, bodies that have played such an important role in making research available to the public service since their creation in the 1960s.

Ken Whitaker was never a dogmatic proponent of any single version of economics. As he put it: 

“I kind of came into economics sideways. I hadn’t heard of it much before I found it was a subject for the Assistant Inspectors of Taxes examination. For six old pennies I could buy Penguin editions of Harold Laski, G.D.H. Cole and other Fabian socialist thinkers. They made very interesting reading for a young man.”

His reflections and arguments were characterised by something I would call ‘the necessary grace of discourse’, and he had it in abundance.  T.K. Whitaker’s regard for reliable economic tools and data never collapsed into arrogant expertise. From the start, economics appealed to Ken as being, as he said, “more of an art than a science.”  And it was, in his eyes, “an art” whose primary function was to serve the general welfare of Irish people, at a time when emigration, unemployment and painfully low production output, including in the agricultural sector, were not just threatening social cohesion, but also undermining the very expectations and achievement of political independence.

It is interesting to note that Ken Whitaker has often imputed the sense of care and service that imbued his work as a “finance man” to the influence of his mother.  A native of County Clare, Jane O’Connor had left her home in Clare to be trained as a Jubilee nurse in Manchester, subsequently securing an appointment in Rostrevor, Co. Down, where she met and married Edward Whitaker. Strong-minded, independent and committed, Jane did not simply instil a desire to do something “of some social benefit” in her son, she also fashioned Ken’s own commitment in female equality, a principle he implemented, for example, as Governor of the Central Bank from 1969 to 1976.

A similar sense of personal connection and involvement has imbued all of Ken Whitaker’s efforts at fostering a peaceful solution to the cycle of violence that characterised Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Convinced, as he was, that the principle of free consent of all those living in Ireland was the necessary precondition for any policy of reunification, his voice was consistently one of reason, dialogue and appeasement throughout an era of convulsed political emotions and sectarian conflict.

The friendships and informal contacts Ken Whitaker sustained with numerous public servants and policy makers, in both Northern Ireland and Britain, became vital channels of communication throughout those years. We, today, remain immensely grateful to Ken’s commitment to the cause of peace on this island.

Tá muid faoi chomaoin ag Ken as a thiomantas do chaomhnú agus do chothabháil na teanga, rud atá ar siúl aige ar feadh a shaol. Tagann grá Ken don teanga óna dhuachas agus óna oideachas luathscolaíochta - ó na paidreacha agus na rainn do pháistí a d'fhoghlam a mháthair le linn a hóige i gContae an Chláir, agus ón spreagadh a fuair sé ó mhúinteoir lenar thug sé cuairt ar Ghaeltacht Ó Méith ar Loch Cairlinn, a bhfuil cáil aor mar áit bhreithe an file Gaelach Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta. 

[Yes, we remain equally in the debt of Ken’s life-long commitment to the preservation and sustenance of the Irish language. Again, Ken Whitaker’s passion for the Irish language goes back to early home and school influences – to his mother’s recollection of prayers and nursery rhymes from her County Clare childhood, and to the inspiring influence of a lay teacher, alongside whom he visited the nearby small Gaeltacht of Omeath, on Carlingford Lough, famous as the birthplace of Gaelic poets such as Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta.]

Ken Whitaker’s interest in the Irish language was further strengthened by his attendance at an Irish summer school in the Donegal Gaeltacht, for several consecutive years in the 1930s. Those visits to the Rannafast area opened up a whole new social and cultural horizon for the young Ken – a captivating world of céilidhe and songs, paidreacha agus mallachtaí, an chuid is buaine de theanga! [prayers and curses – the core of a language!], morning swims in the poll snaimh, and even dances with unchaperoned girls.

Ken’s wife, Nora, shared his passion for the language, and Irish thus became the language of choice of their household.  The couple’s attachment to the language was deepened by their purchase of an abandoned schoolhouse in Glencullen, not far from Bangor Erris, in north County Mayo – one of the lesser-known Gaeltacht areas, to which Ken had first been introduced by the eminent folklorist and international scholar James (Séamus) Hamilton Delargy.

Of course Irish was not simply a private, but also a public, passion for Ken Whitaker. It was a passion he shared generously with others by redefining the government’s official language policy, in his capacity as secretary of the Department of Finance in the 1960s. Leading by example, Ken used Irish wherever the opportunity arose, in departmental memos and reports, in official meetings and conversations, and even in published articles on complex monetary and economic matters.

Ken Whitaker also encouraged Seán Ó Tuama and the poet Thomas Kinsella, who had worked with him in the Department of Finance, to collaborate on a compilation of a new anthology of poems in the Irish language, with accompanying English translations. 

Published in 1981, and spanning a period from the fall of the old Gaelic culture in the early 17th century to the emergence of English as the dominant vernacular in the 19th century, An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed was dedicated by its editors to  T.K. Whitaker.                    

It remains today an enduring example of the ethos that guided Ken Whitaker’s efforts to make Irish language and culture accessible to all – Irish and English speakers alike.  He saw the trap that constituted the tyranny of binary constructs.  It must not be a choice of English or Irish, of science or culture of economics or ethics.  His life is one of making connections, of achieving symmetry. 

All of us can surely be inspired by the profoundly humanistic vision Ken Whitaker had for the Irish language – a vision to which he gave a compelling articulation when he said, as chairman of Bord na Gaeilge in the 1970s, that our commitment to a bilingual Ireland should be based:

“On a recognition that the Irish language is a most precious heritage, the thing that most signifies and maintains our continuity as a distinctive people, the key to a treasure-trove of poetry and prose epics, folklore and song, which has expressed the imagination and feeling, the wisdom and humour, all the varied responses of generations of Irish people to life and its vicissitudes from the early centuries down, indeed, to our own day.”

A Chairde Gael,

Is mian liom a rá arís chomh mór is atáim as an duais seo fháil. Agus muid ag comóradh céad bliain ó Éirí Amach na Cásca agus ó bhreith scoth na státseirbhíseach in Éirinn, sé sin Thomas Kenneth Whitaker - is fúinne ar fad é glacadh leis an dushlán saol shóisialta, saol chultúrtha agus saol eacnamaíoch mhuintir na hÉireann a thabhairt ar aghaidh, ionas go mbeidh ár saoránaigh ar fad in ann leas a bhaint as ár saoirse pholaitiúil.

[May I say, once again, how honoured I feel to be receiving this inaugural T.K. Whitaker Award. On this year when we are celebrating both the centenary of the Easter Rising and the hundredth anniversary of Ireland’s most outstanding civil servant – Thomas Kenneth Whitaker – all of us are challenged to continue the task of advancing the social, cultural and economic flourishing of all of Ireland’s citizens as the true measure of our political freedom.]

Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir.