TK Whitaker dies aged 100
The ‘Greatest Irish Person of the 20th Century’ has passed away aged 100.
Thomas Ken Whitaker is credited with modernising Ireland by transforming the economy from being dependent on rural agriculture to one that thrives in the technology sector, and ultimately in the modern digital age.
TK Whitaker was born in Rostrevor, County Down and went on to spend decades working as a civil servant.
He was a key figure in persuading political leaders to build a country that wasn’t so dependent on its agricultural sector. He wanted Ireland to solve the problem of emigration by providing the people with skilled jobs.
He was also influential in convincing leaders to move away from tariffs and protectionism and towards welcoming foreign investment.
Today thousands of Irish people are employed in highly skilled jobs for huge multinational companies such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google.
The fact that those companies have chosen Ireland as their European base is due to tax advantages that the country offers – a policy which has roots that can be traced back to the mid-20th century and TK Whitaker.
Mr Whitaker became Secretary General of the Department of Finance in 1956. Ireland was only one of two countries in Europe (along with East Germany) whose population was declining.
At the time, the main source of livelihood for Irish people was through small farms. There were few job opportunities for the bulk of the population and Ireland was losing hundreds of thousands of people to emigration.
Mr Whitaker produced a famous report titled ‘Economic Development’ which argued that Ireland was trapped in a ‘vicious circle’. He wrote that: “increasing migration resulted in a small domestic market depleted of initiative and skill and a reduced incentive.
“The common talk among parents in the towns, as in rural Ireland, is of their children having to emigrate as soon as their education is completed in order to be sure of a reasonable livelihood.”
In 2001, Whitaker was named as ‘Ireland’s Greatest Person of the 20th Century’ by the public. It shows just how highly thought of he was when you consider that he was voted above great heroes such as Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins and the Easter Rising leaders.
The Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole said: “Between 1951 and 1956, 197,000 more people left than entered the country – a figure that seemed appalling at the time. By 1961, no more than half of all those born in Ireland in the 1930s were still living on the island.”
Ireland’s Taoiseach Enda Kenny said: “TK Whitaker changed life, lives and generations in Ireland. In the last decades, he more than any other person was responsible for transforming our economy and public life.
“He had a rare vision for our country and its future. He was a gentleman and patriot. Today, as a nation, we mourn the passing of this outstanding man. We celebrate and give thanks for his exemplary achievements on behalf of Ireland.”
On Whitaker’s 99th birthday he reminded us what his mission had been. He said: “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…in the benefits, moral and cultural, as well as material, of spending their lives and bringing up their families in Ireland.”
Written by Michael Kehoe @michaelcalling