Thomas Kenneth Whitaker was born in Rostrevor, County Down, on 8 December 1916.
In 1956 Whitaker was appointed Secretary of the Department of Finance at the age of thirty-nine. His appointment took 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 agriculture to 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, and quite unusually this was published with his name attached in November 1958. The programme became known as the "Grey Book" brought the stimulus of foreign investment into the Irish economy.
In 1977, the then Fianna Fáil Taoiseach Jack Lynch nominated Whitaker as a member of the 14th Seanad Éireann from 1977 to 1981, where he served as an independent (i.e. non-party) senator. 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, and he also chaired a Parole Board or Sentence Review Group for several years.
Whitaker also served as Chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1976 to 1996. He was also 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 collection of Irish poetry, An Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed 1600-1900, edited by Seán Ó Tuama and Thomas Kinsella was dedicated to Whitaker. From 1995 to 1996 he chaired the Constitution Review Group, an independent expert group established by the government, which published its report in July 1996.
Whitaker received many national and international honours and tributes for his achievements during his lifetime, most notably the conferral of “Irishman of the 20th Century” in 2001 and Greatest Living Irish Person in 2002. In November 2014, the Institute of Banking conferred an Honorary Fellowship on Whitaker and created an annual T.K. Whitaker Scholarship in his name. In April 2015, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award by University College Dublin’s Economics Society for his outstanding contribution to Ireland’s Economic Policy.
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