TK WHITAKER - A PRE-BREXIT HAND ACROSS THE BORDER
By Anne Chambers
The climate has been transformed by the widespread acceptance of the principle of consent. Paradoxically consent may be more positively and firmly given when the choice is free and no surrender to pressure can be alleged.’ Northern Ireland – In Search of a Solution, TK Whitaker, 1997
On the second anniversary of the death of Ireland’s ‘Man of the 20th Century’ one of the three national issues at the core of his lifetime of public service has again come centre stage but perhaps in a way that even TK Whitaker could not have contemplated.
A native of Rostrevor, Co Down one of the principal motivations throughout his long life was to establish a positive relationship between North and South. Over a thirty year period, from 1967 to 1997, the role he played as advisor, mediator and policy-maker, on a purely voluntary basis, bringing a practical and common sense approach to issues previously impeded by emotional historical rhetoric was, until recently, little known.
As a public servant he initiated cross-border relationships as early as the 1950s with his civil service counterparts in Northern Ireland on issues of mutual cross-border benefit such as electricity supply, transport and the Erne waterway. On 14 January 1965 he arranged the historic meeting between Sean Lemass and Captain Terence O’Neill which broke the forty-three year long wall of silence that had up to then existed between the leaders of both parts of Ireland.
Despite the terrible chaos of the following decades Whitaker never gave up on the search for peace by constitutional means. In 1969, amidst the carnage, rioting and teargas he wrote Jack Lynch’s famous ‘Tralee Speech’ which publicly, and for the first time, committed the Irish Government to a policy of reunification by the principle of consent. In 1970 he embarked on a behind-the-scenes dialogue with his opposite numbers in the public service and banking sectors in Northern Ireland and in the UK from which, over the following two decades, emanated many policy documents which, in turn, informed the Irish and UK Governments’ policy on Northern Ireland. One of Whitaker’s own policy documents ‘Northern Ireland – A Possible Solution’ written in 1971 is, in reality, the Good Friday Agreement for slow learners.
When everybody in the administration, ministers, soldiers, civil
servants, diplomats, were running around like headless chickens
Ken Whitaker stood out as a man for all seasons – a reference to
That other prototypical civil servant, Sir Thomas Moore.’
During the 1960s in his role as the pioneering architect of Ireland’s economic development Whitaker spearheaded the country’s convoluted path towards membership of what was then the European Economic Market (EEC). As secretary of the Department of Finance he led many delegations to European capitals seeking support for Ireland’s admittance to the then exclusive club of six nations. In January 1962, with Taoiseach Sean Lemass, he attended an EEC Council meeting in Brussels where Ireland’s case was coolly received. The implacable Charles de Gaulle, whose vision of Europe ‘regrouper les pays qui touchant aux Alpes, au Rhin et aux Pyrenees’ in a private meeting with Whitaker that Ireland’s economic and financial destiny lay not with Europe but with the United Kingdom.
This rebuff to Ireland’s initial attempts to join the European Economic Community, now the European Union (the word ‘community’ having since been supplanted) and its implications for the Irish economy was offset in 1965 by a bilateral trade agreement with the United Kingdom. Negotiated and managed by Ken Whitaker and his team of civil servants, over a six-month period of hard-bargaining, the first Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement became the lifeline for Irish exports, particularly agricultural exports, during the uncertain years prior to membership of the EEC in 1973 its importance acknowledged by Sean Lemass.
Dear Mr Whitaker,
On my own behalf and on behalf of the Government I wish
to commend and thank you most sincerely for the valuable
personal contribution you made to the successful conclusion
of the Free Trade Agreement with Britain… What you and
your colleagues did in London went far beyond the normal
call of duty and has enhanced the already high reputation of
the Irish civil service for devotion to the public interest.
Fifty-three years later Ireland, north and south, is once again faced with economic uncertainty and with a new threat to the Border, this time by virtue of the UK’s decision to exit the EU. While the economic scenario vis-à-vis Ireland and the UK may have altered in the intervening years, we still share more than that which may divide us; a close interdependence in the areas of trade and travel, further complicated by the political developments in relation to Northern Ireland that have since occurred by virtue of the Good Friday Agreement.
Perhaps as in 1965 Ireland, north and south, should seek some form of (even an interim) bilateral Anglo Irish arrangement in the areas of trade and travel which could also ease, even eliminate, the conundrum posed by the border and protect all that has been achieved under the Good Friday Agreement.
And in relation to relations between both parts of this island, fifty-three years later, albeit in a different scenario, perhaps the two leaders North and South, showing similar courage and generosity, should emulate the actions of their predecessors in 1965. Perhaps over the coming weeks Taoiseach Leo Varadkar might also secretly travel northwards to meet with his counterpart Arlene Foster to find a way out of the present Backstop dilemma and by exchanging the current negativity by the positivity that will emerge, when dialogue replaces silence and common sense and goodwill replaces suspicion, ensure the future economic prosperity of both their communities, north and south.
Imagine the reaction if the two Irish leaders, with courage, vision and statesmanship, out of earshot of the media circus, managed to achieve what European and British leaders over the past two years seem incapable.
It would undoubtedly be an undertaking that would meet with TK Whitaker’s approval.
ANNE CHAMBERS is author of T.K. Whitaker: Portrait of a Patriot (Transworld/Doubleday Ireland)
Click this link to listen to RTE Morning Ireland - TK Whitaker with Anne Chambers