Felix M. Larkin
SPEECH DELIVERED AT MY RETIREMENT PRESENTATION
NTMA, 30 SEPTEMBER 2009
Thank you. Listening to all the fine things that have been said about me, I began to feel that this is not so much an early retirement as an early release for good behaviour – but then nobody has ever accused me before of good behaviour.
Let me say straightaway that saying goodbye is a lot more difficult than I had thought it was going to be. I have spent 36 years in the Irish public service – mostly good years, split almost exactly half and half between the Department of Finance and the National Treasury Management Agency. I have always been proud to be a public servant. Born in 1951, I grew up in the idealistic 1960s and went to UCD in that significant year for all students everywhere, 1968 – and I have largely retained the values that I imbibed in those heady times. It is vital later on in life, when things become more complex and confused, to remember what was your initial inspiration – and mine was the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy and his brothers, perhaps best summed up by those famous words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
I have accordingly always regarded public service as a noble calling. I have never been employed other than in the public service, and have never wanted to be employed anywhere else. The alternative never appealed – for, as Dr. Johnson wrote in 1775:
A merchant’s desire is not of glory, but of gain; not of public wealth, but of private emolument; he is, therefore, rarely to be consulted about war and peace, or any design of wide extent and distant consequence.
These words express eloquently why I am happy to have spent my working life in the public service, and it goes without saying that recent events in this country bear sad witness to their essential truth.
That said, it must be acknowledged that the NTMA has been an interesting, indeed unique, exercise in attempting to unite public service ethos and standards with the best specialist technical and managerial expertise in the private sector – expertise which the public service was simply unable to pay for, notwithstanding the rather facile arguments which we now hear about the public service being overpaid. To adapt another quotation from Dr. Johnson, what is remarkable about the NTMA is not that it was done so well, but that it was done at all. I was very honoured to be recruited from the Department of Finance as one of the foundation staff of the Agency. Michael Somers has often claimed that he took the best and the brightest with him from the Department, and who am I to disagree with him?
My current director, Oliver Whelan, was another Finance man who came over to the Agency on its establishment – and I can testify that he is genuinely the best and the brightest, easily the most intelligent person I have ever worked for and a most courteous and kind boss. It has been a pleasure working with Oliver over the past five years. In thanking him, I would also like to thank those who have had the misfortune to work for me in the Agency – in chronological order: Carmel Rochford, Ciaran Rogers, Brigid Greene, Aoibheann O’Sullivan and Dymphna McHugh. I had great times with each of them, and remember them all today with much affection. I remember too my good friend, Fionán Coleman – who, like Oliver and myself, left the Department of Finance in 1991 to join the Agency, but sadly died in the year 2000 at an appallingly early age.
The NTMA is, after nearly 20 years in existence, justly renowned for its achievements and its contribution to the economic success story that was the Irish experience at least until very recently. In my own particular area, Irish government retail debt has grown by a factor of 3 since 1991 and we have grown the share of the National Debt raised from the retail sector from about 10% to a peak of 18% in 2006. There have been a few milestones along the way – including a successful High Court action against the then Irish Permanent Building Society in 1994 – and in 2007, I was asked to chair the first World Bank symposium on government retail debt, held in Washington DC. That was certainly the high point of my career – but I recognise that it was a tribute not only to me personally but also to the NTMA and to Ireland generally. We are held in high esteem in international financial circles, and there is enormous goodwill towards us – which, of course, helps us in our present difficulties. Building that goodwill has been an important part of the NTMA’s achievement, and I take considerable satisfaction in having been part of it.
For me, however, all that is now at an end – and I move on, with great expectations, into the next phase of my life. As many of you will know, I have had a serious interest in history all my life. I hope to pursue that interest in the coming years, and am conscious that I must not squander the opportunity that I have been given to write something worthwhile before my mental faculties begin to fade. Paradoxically, the past is my future; my future is the past.
In this moment of change, I am conscious of a strange coincidence – something which gives my career a curious symmetry. Later on this year, I will publish a little book of political cartoons by an artist whose penname was Shemus and whose work appeared in the old Freeman’s Journal newspaper between 1920 and 1924, a particularly turbulent period in Irish history. He was the Martyn Turner of his day. I hope you will all buy a few copies, for yourselves and as Christmas presents for your friends – this poor pensioner needs the royalties. In any event, the coincidence is that the Shemus cartoons were, I believe, largely responsible for the fact that I was offered a job in the public service some 36 years ago. The chairman of the interview board that vetted me was a former Secretary of the old Department of Posts and Telegraphs, Dr. Leon Ó Broin – also a very eminent historian. I had just finished an MA thesis on the later history of the Freeman’s Journal, and Dr. Ó Broin focused in on this and asked me about the Shemus cartoons. We discussed the cartoons for a considerable time during the interview – to the evident annoyance of the other members of the board. I didn’t know as much about the cartoons then as I now know – but I knew enough to satisfy Dr. Ó Broin’s curiosity, and I got the job. That explains how such an obviously unsuitable candidate as myself got into the Irish public service.
And now, 36 years later, I depart. It is a sobering, life-changing moment – and there are few of those in a lifetime. My feelings are, however, well reflected in a little poem by Brendan Kennelly in his latest collection – published earlier this year – and I would like to conclude by sharing it with you:
So much has happened in my bit
of time I’d need a century at least
to write it down. I have to go now.
Nice to see you. My successor is here.
Time to vanish. I don’t dare give advice
to anyone. I only know that most
of what is said and done is forgotten.
Just as well perhaps.