One of T.K. Whitakers life-long motivations in public office was to establish a positive relationship in Ireland between North and South which over more recent times has become threatened by economic issues such as Brexit and the Backstop.
As early as the 1950s Whitaker initiated cross-border relationships with his civil service counterparts in Northern Ireland on issues of mutual benefit such as electricity supply, transport and the Erne waterway. On 14 January 1965 he arranged the historic meeting between Sean Lemass and Terence O’Neill which broke the forty-three year long wall of silence that up to that time had existed between the leaders of both parts of Ireland.
In 1969, amidst the carnage, rioting and teargas he wrote Jack Lynch’s ‘Tralee Speech’ which 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.
During the 1960s in his role as the pioneering architect of the Republic’s economic development Whitaker spearheaded the country’s convoluted path towards membership of what was then the European Economic Market. As secretary of the Department of Finance he led delegations to European capitals seeking support for Ireland’s admittance to the then exclusive club of six nations. In January 1962 he attended an EEC Council meeting in Brussels where Ireland’s case was coolly received.
This rebuff to Ireland’s initial attempt to join the European Economic Community (now the European Union) 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.
While the economic scenario vis-à-vis Ireland and the UK may have altered in the intervening years, both countries share more than what may divide us; a close interdependence in the areas of trade and travel and as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Perhaps as in 1965 Ireland should again investigate some form of a bilateral Anglo Irish arrangement in the area of trade. While this time such a venture would, of necessity, need EU support, however, as it might also serve to ease, even eliminate, the conundrum, for Europe as much as for Britain, posed by the Backstop, as well as protect what has been achieved under the Good Friday Agreement, given Ireland’s unique position in relation to Brexit it might also find support among our European partners.
And as to relations between both parts of this island, perhaps TK Whitaker’s proposal made in 1997, as part of the evolving relationship between North and South, to establish a ‘Council of Ireland’ where issues of common interest affecting both sides of the Border, for example Brexit, could be discussed by politicians from both North and South. The fact that such a proposal originated in the 1920s, has never been tried and therefore never incurred any criticism, in theory at least means, as Whitaker noted, ‘that its potentiality is still green’.