Identity Statement for Thomas Kenneth Whitaker

  • Reference code: IE UCDA P175
  • Title: Papers of T.K. Whitaker (b. 1916)
  • Dates: 1927–96
  • Level of description: Fonds
  • Extent: 14 boxes
  • Context
  • Content and Structure
  • Conditions of Access and Use

Biographical History

Thomas Kenneth Whitaker (b. 1916) was born in Rostrevor, County Down to Edward and Jane Whitaker (née O'Connor). The family moved to Drogheda when he was five years old and he attended the Christian Brothers school there.

He sat the Civil Service Clerical Officers examinations in 1934, achieved first place and joined the civil service. The following year he successfully applied for the position of executive officer; in 1937 he was made an assistant inspector of taxes; and in 1938 he became an administrative officer in the Department of Finance. In 1943 he was promoted to assistant principal; by 1947 he was a principal officer; and in 1955, at the very young age of 39, he was appointed Secretary to the Department of Finance. 

His career as a civil servant flourished and he exercised unprecedented influence in shaping Irish economic policy in the late 1950s and 1960s. The publication in 1958 of Whitaker's Economic Development, known as 'the grey book', is widely accepted as a landmark in Irish economic history.

His surprise appointment as Secretary had taken place at a time when Ireland's economy was in deep depression. Economic growth was non-existent, inflation apparently insoluble, unemployment rife, living standards low and emigration at a figure not far below the birth rate. Whitaker believed that free trade, with increased competition and the end of protectionism, would become inevitable and that jobs would have to be created by a shift from an essentially agricultural economy to one based on industry and services. He formed a team of officials within the department which produced a detailed study of the economy, culminating in a plan recommending policies for improvement. The plan was accepted by the government and was transformed into a White Paper which became known as the First Programme for Economic Expansion.

Subsequently, Whitaker steered Ireland’s programme of trade liberalisation and structural reform in the 1960s. Economic growth accelerated as a result. In 1973, Ireland acceded to the EU in a process in which he played an instrumental role as Governor of the Central Bank of Ireland, a position to which he had moved in 1969. He served as Governor until he took early retirement in 1976.

His influence was not confined to economic matters. In 1965 he liaised with Jim Malley, private secretary to Terence O’Neill, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, and was able to successfully organise the unprecedented meeting between LEMASS, SEÁN and O'Neill.

Although Whitaker had left the Department of Finance in 1969, he remained policy advisor to Jack Lynch on Northern Ireland. As a result, a document entitled 'The Constitutional Position of Northern Ireland in IV parts' was created, which analyzed the historical development of the situation in Northern Ireland, the pro and anti-partition views, and possible reconciliation between North and South.

Whitaker worked with the Ford Foundation to secure funding to launch the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland in 1960, and was its president from foundation for over fifteen years.

In 1977, the then Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Jack Lynch nominated Whitaker as a member of the 14th Seanad Éireann, where he served as an independent (i.e. non-party) senator from 1977 to 1981. In 1981 he was nominated to the 15th Seanad by the Fine Gael ‌Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald‌, where he served until 1982. FitzGerald also appointed him to chair a Committee of Inquiry into the Irish penal system. He also chaired a Parole Board or Sentence Review Group for several years.

Whitaker served as Chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1976 to 1996. He was President of the Royal Irish Academy and, as such, a member of the Board of Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland, from 1985 to 1987. He has had a very strong love for the Irish language throughout his career and the seminal collection of Irish poetry, An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 16001900, edited by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella was dedicated to him.

From 1995–6 he chaired the Constitution Review Group, an independent expert group established by the government, which published its report in July 1996.

Ken Whitaker also served as first Chairman of the Scholarship Board of the O'Reilly Foundation and first Chairman of the Agency for Personal Service Overseas (APSO). He is a Fellow of the International Academy of Management.

In 2001, an RTÉ programme voted Whitaker the "Irishman of the 20th Century" and in 2002 he received the "Greatest Living Irish Person" award. Dundalk Institute of Technology opened a building named in his honour in 2001 and in 2005 Whitaker Square, a commercial development in Dublin's docklands, was also named in his honour.

Archival History

This collection was deposited in UCD Archives by Dr T.K. Whitaker in successive stages, 1994–9. Two files from Dr Whitaker’s papers have been available for consultation for some time: a file on Northern Ireland , 1965–9; and a file on free trade v protectionism in Irish economic policy-making, 1959–60. These have been incorporated into the present catalogue as P175/1 and P175/50 respectively


Scope and Content

Papers relating to T.K. Whitaker’s lengthy career as a public servant, economist and influential public figure including:

Northern Ireland, 1965-94: the constitutional position of Northern Ireland; cross-border political relations, the Sunningdale Agreement, 1973 and aftermath; devolution and power sharing initiatives; the Anglo-Irish Agreement (Hillsborough, 1985) and reactions; Northern Ireland associations and organisations.

Finance: the national economy and the banking system, 1927–69; a memoir of his period as Director of the Central Bank, 1979; papers relating to national programmes for economic development, 1963–83; Ireland and the European Union.

Lectures, broadcasts and papers, 1949–89. Papers relating to his involvement with educational, social and cultural bodies, 1969–96.

  • Access: Available by appointment to holders of a UCDA reader's ticket. Produced for consultation in digital format.
  • Language: English, occasional Irish and French
  • Finding aid: Descriptive catalogue