Thomas Kenneth Whitaker was born in 1916 in Rostrevor, County Down. He has been described as a great Irishman whose “vision, training, warm humanity and unflagging zeal ensured that the administrative apparatus of the state was applied to the country’s economic transformation at a critical juncture” (Ó Muircheartaigh, 1997: xxii).
His achievements span a lifetime of commitment and dedication to: outstanding public service; the promotion of a economic policy agenda that brought path breaking change to Ireland; the advancement of a political agenda dedicated to engaging with the Northern Ireland question; supporting the artistic and cultural life of Ireland.
He joined the Irish Civil Service in 1934 and had what has been described as a “meteoric rise”. In 1956 Whitaker was appointed Secretary at the Department of Finance at the age of thirty-nine, becoming the youngest ever person to hold this senior position. He served in this capacity for 13 years. Economic development and trade liberalisation became the hallmarks of his efforts in this role. His appointment took place at a time when Ireland's economy was in deep recession. 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 of Finance who produced a detailed study of the economy. This detailed study and analysis culminated in the First Programme for Economic Expansion. This programme became a landmark in Irish economic history, primarily for its brave new ideas around industrial policy and trade liberalisation. It resulted in a radical shift in the developmental trajectory of the Irish economy, away from protectionism towards a policy dedicated to securing FDI for Ireland. Economic growth accelerated as a result of these and related initiatives which he presided over. He served as Governor of the Central Bank from the period 1969 to 1976.
During his period in the Central Bank, he remained policy advisor to Jack Lynch on matters concerning Northern Ireland. In 1977 Lynch nominated Whitaker to the Seanad, where he served as an independent senator from ‘77 to’81. In 1981 he was re-nominated by Garret FitzGerald, where he served until 1982. Whitaker also served as Chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1976 to 1996. In 1991, the then President, Mary Robinson, appointed Whitaker to the Council of State. From 1995–1996 he chaired the Constitution Review Group, an independent expert group established by the government, which published its report in July 1996.In 2001, he was voted "Irishman of the 20th Century and in 2002, voted "Greatest Living Irish Person".
T.K.Whitaker has made the most profound difference to the development of Ireland both as a society and as an economy and his lifetime of service to Ireland means that he is the most deserving of recipients of this award.