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TK Whitaker Obituary 

By D.R.O'Connor Lysaght

27 January 2017

As any Irish person knows by now, Thomas Kenneth Whitaker is dead after making his century. No doubt, now that the mourning is over and the hagiographies published, the great and the good will be considering how to stage the first miracle to set him on the way to canonisation, and wondering whether turning enough wine into water in Doheny and Nesbitt's will serve the purpose. They will repeat the chorus, "he created modern Ireland." They will not realise that this mantra is, to say the least, backhanded praise, based on retrospective memory of a conjectural situation.

In any case, it is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, of course, Whitaker did no more than formulate changes for which the hour had come. The protectionism associated with Sean Lemass had contained potential for further development, but only as a basis for much wider state-owned industry. As Lemass was trying to build Irish capitalism, he had refused to follow this process, even opposing railway nationalisation. Capital was allowed to leave the country to produce greater profits elsewhere and leave Ireland to stagnate.

With a feeble and divided left and a rabidly anti-socialist Catholic hierarchy maintaining a popular consciousness that kept Irish neutrality purely military, the subjective factors preventing socialist measures negated their objective justification. Debate on economic policy was kept strictly within the capitalist context of neo-mercantilism against neo-liberalism. In a crisis created in part and obviously by neo-mercantilism, neo-liberalism had the advantage.

Whitaker's role in this was that of a draughtsman. It is a myth that he was promoted ahead of seniority by Minister of Finance Gerard Sweetman because they shared a vision of a liberal revolution in economic policy. Sweetman was no visionary; he appointed Whitaker because Whitaker was expressing articulately his own strict conservative views on finance, views imposed on the present generation under the heading of austerity. It should be added that, as his admirers have had to admit, this hostility to state welfare was even more part of the man than opposition to protectionism. Both free secondary education and free travel for pensions were introduced against his protests.

He did advocate the ending of tariffs and the republicís greater integration into imperialism. Sweetman did not go that far. Whitaker offered the strategy to Lemass and Lemass persuaded Fianna Fail, covering it by making it part of a "Programme for Economic Expansion". This allowed Lemass, and Lynch after him to preside with minimum intervention, while the nuclei of Irish industries produced within the old tariffs, some of them having real potential were liquidated by owners unable to change to free trade. To have intervened to save them against these entrepreneurs would have been socialism, and neither Whitaker nor his ministerial bosses wanted that. At all events, capital came in, and although the economy was not the low wage, low skilled affair that Whitaker would have preferred, it was no longer the high emigration one either. 

Whitaker's other great initiative was equally elitist. Again, it is unclear whether it was Lemass or he who thought that the problem of British-Orange hegemony in Northern Ireland could be resolved by recognising the legitimacy of that territory's separation from the rest of the country. Again, however, if he did not initiate the plan for ministerial co-operation, north and south, he accepted it enthusiastically. His experience of his home province was limited. He had been reared in Rostrevor, in south Co.Down, where Orange power was relatively weak; the two urban districts of Newry and Warrenpoint (5 km from Rostrevor) had proved ungerrymanderable for Unionism. It was easy for Whitaker to ignore the machinery of sectarianism that maintained and justified Orange (and British imperial) power, and to see the partition question as soluble by diplomatic means. He seems to have believed that north-south co-operation at a ministerial level would have achieved a meeting of minds which might have laid the foundations for ultimate Irish unity. As a result, he was inclined to blame the civil rights movement for forcing his new friends into uncompromising positions.

His economics began to fall apart at the same time. Their failure has been ascribed to the oil crisis of the seventies, but the Second Programme had already had to be scrapped and deficit financing introduced. Order was restored in the late eighties only through the obligatory savage welfare cuts and, then, though the co-option of the unions into decision making with their independence (and, more importantly, that of their members) curtailed. The process was repeated, of course, after 2008.

North and south, the forms were maintained, though the benefits delivered were minimal. By the end, Whitaker had become a living icon, rather than a policymaker. His system will continue to spiral as long as the bosses are in control. 

There is no capitalist answer (in or out of the EU) to the problem, only suggestions pointing the way to the working people taking state power. The most that can be said for Whitaker is that he helped alleviate the situation for a period. 


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