Peter Sutherland: Moral Merkel. Fragile Europe. ‘Sneering’ Ireland

He’s a lifelong pro-European, supports Germany’s progressive stance on migration and is one of Ireland’s most successful international players. So why do the sneers of some of his countrymen still sting?

Peter Sutherland: ‘Countries can share Syrian refugees or choose from three options: leave them on the beaches,  lock them in camps or send them back to the hell they’ve escaped.’

Peter Sutherland: ‘Countries can share Syrian refugees or choose from three options: leave them on the beaches, lock them in camps or send them back to the hell they’ve escaped.’


In the shadowy, wood-lined study of his London home, Peter Sutherland’s oval face drifts in and out of the pool of light cast by a green desk lamp. His alert eyes are restless as he worries about the future and ponders his past.

Now 69, he has straddled the peaks of private industry and the public service (which he says he prefers). His is a remarkable career, but it is one that could have turned out very differently had the voters of Dublin North-West elected him a Fine Gael TD in 1973. Instead he became Ireland’s youngest attorney general, in 1981, and then, at 38, a European commissioner.

In the years since, Sutherland has acquired more influence and power than most politicians can dream of. Presidents, prime ministers and popes have him on their Christmas card lists – and speed-dial. Sutherland enjoys the influence he has acquired but says that he has always used it to advance the “noble project” of European integration.

“I am a strong believer in European integration as the taming of nationalism,” he says. Dressed casually in a pink sweater, grey trousers and suede slip-on shoes, Sutherland concedes these days that the European integration project, and defenders of it such as himself, are “under siege”.

There’s no sign of a siege outside on the quiet Kensington square where he lives. The white plaster facades are as pristine as the gated private garden in the centre, surrounded by Jaguars and Land Rovers. Yet, in this age of anxiety, appearances are deceptive. Down the road in Westminster the British government has both hands full. With one it is renegotiating its EU membership, a risky business that many fear will break EU integration or even the EU itself. With the other hand London has gone to war against Islamic State (or Isis) while refusing to accept significant numbers of refugees fleeing Isis – a movement that critics say blossomed thanks in part to a previous British-backed war, in Iraq.

It’s a similar mess across continental Europe, where solidarity, strained by recent financial and euro crises, is at breaking point as EU member states accuse each other of betraying the bloc’s core principles in responding to a refugee crisis of historic dimensions.

‘I am absolutely an internationalist’ 

As special representative on migration to both the United Nations and the Holy See,Sutherland now has a ringside seat for historic events that will either make or break European integration.

“This is the challenge of our generation, and we will be judged by history by our reaction,” he says. “I think Angela Merkel is right in saying this is the terminal crisis for the EU if it goes wrong.”

At the recent EU summit in Valletta Sutherland found himself standing for the group photograph beside the German chancellor, someone he has met regularly over the past decade. “I said in her ear, ‘You’re a hero,’ ” he says. “She looked at me in surprise and said: ‘But it’s for Europe.’ I said: ‘I know: that’s why.’ ”

For him the exchange captures how the European integration project and migrant challenge must converge if both are to succeed. “Angela Merkel has associated the morality of the migrant issue with trying to hold Europe together at a time when it is in danger of breaking,” he says. “It’s exactly how I feel.”

Sutherland, who was born in April 1946, was educated by the Jesuits at Gonzaga College in Ranelagh. “We were expected to lead in society if we could,” he says.

Sutherland could, and did. In 1974 the young barrister married his Spanish wife, Maruja, with whom he has three children. Aged just 35, he was appointed attorney general for the first of two Garret FitzGerald governments.

Barry Desmond, a FitzGerald cabinet member, remembers Sutherland as a “calm and highly effective” political figure. In the 1983 abortion debate the young AG predicted that the amendment’s “ambiguous and unsatisfactory” wording would lead to “confusion and uncertainty”.

“He was hugely emphatic and hugely courageous,” says Desmond, describing Sutherland as a “stand-out” figure in a fraught era.

His appointment to the European Commission’s competition portfolio in 1984, which started him down an international path, was welcomed at the time by The Irish Times for ending a run of “Irish rag-bag portfolios” in Brussels.

Contemporaries remembered the young commissioner later as someone who was “happy to go through you for a short cut” in his crusade to liberalise competition restrictions.

Looking back on his start in Brussels, Sutherland suggests that his outward-looking approach is what has made him, alongside Mary Robinson, one of the few Irish figures to last in international circles. He employs his Irish charm to network and admits being the happy beneficiary of positive stereotypes left by Irish missionaries around the world.

“But I am probably making more of my Irishness to you than in reality,” he says, leaning back in his leather chair. “I am absolutely an internationalist, and Garret was too. That is what we came together on and why he appointed me to Europe.”

Midwife to the birth of globalisation

Leaving Brussels in 1989, he took his work there on economic and financial integration – the so-called 1992 project – to the next, global level when approached by the US and Europeans to transform the general agreement on tariffs and trade, or

Gatt, into the World Trade Organisation. As its first director general, for two years until 1995, he had a midwife’s role in the birth of what we now call globalisation.

But, like the European idea, globalisation is also under attack. Last week in Geneva President Michael D Higgins warned a UN debt conference that globalisation was not a force of nature but a man-made global phenomenon in urgent need of global regulatory structures.

Sutherland agrees with the president. “Clearly he is right that the architecture of global multilateral governance needs to be reformed and improved,” he says. But he disagrees with the argument that globalisation is a negative force, pointing to a recent World Bank report showing that it has lifted record numbers of people out of abject poverty.

But what of globalisation’s effect on his fellow Europeans? Would they perhaps feel more welcoming towards refugees if they didn’t feel so vulnerable in this globalised age of uncertainty?

“Obviously if a country and people believe they have been badly done by economic distribution, then the mood towards people coming in is going to be negatively impacted,” he says. “But I think most arguments against immigrants are based far more on a sense of nativist interests: ‘We are different, we are here, and we don’t want them here.’ ”

Those attitudes, compounded by an official resistance to cede national sovereignty on migrant matters, have burdened his involvement in migration issues.

Combating ‘negativism towards migrants’

He was approached two decades ago to be UN high commissioner for refugees, but work commitments as chairman of BP forced him to decline.

In 2006 the UN’s secretary general, Kofi Annan, came calling again – and won Sutherland as his special representative on migration issues. Since then he has worked pro bono to co-ordinate UN migration policy, setting up the Global Forum on Migration and Development, which attracts up to 140 countries annually over five days.

“It’s done a lot of good work but in a very informal, unstructured way,” says Sutherland, who is hopeful that next September’s conference will deliver overdue global agreements for both refugees and economic migrants.

After a decade advising the Holy See on financial affairs Sutherland, a practising Catholic, was approached a year ago to become the pope’s special representative on migration issues.

After sounding the refugee alarm long before European governments woke up, he now devotes himself full time to a crisis that has seen 12 million Syrians flee their war-torn homeland.

Sutherland despairs of Britain’s deteriorating migration debate but reserves special odium for Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Their restrictive line on asylum seekers threatens the Schengen principles of free movement of people, he says, and is a “body blow to European integration”.

As someone who has fought, but never won, an election, Sutherland concedes that elected politicians have to factor public opinion into their actions.

“But what I object to is that public opinion is allowed develop a negativism towards migrants which could be combated by senior politicians explaining the facts,” he says. Facts such as the net positive economic contribution migrants make to societies, he says, and lower rates of criminality or welfare fraud.

But are there negative effects, too, of framing the refugee crisis in exclusively humanitarian terms? Are people wrong to be concerned about the consequences of accepting large numbers of people into their countries on the basis of universal values – from gender equality to gay rights – that new arrivals do not necessarily share?

“I accept that if someone comes into your society and does not accept your values they have no right to stay and no right to come in in the first place,” he says. But given the scale of the migration, who is checking that? “Only in context of time can you can establish if someone adheres to values.”

Tension between short-term refugee actions and concerns about long-term societal effect have affected even Merkel. Her open-door policy to refugees has been a “tremendous example”, Sutherland says, one that he regrets other countries – Sweden excepted – have not followed.

“If you took a vote tomorrow on who should be president of Europe on a universal-franchise basis, she would win hands down,” he says; it is a remarkable achievement given her country’s history. “She has repositioned Germany as a moral leader in Europe.”

Was he surprised, then, when Merkel threw her usual caution to the wind last August and made a spontaneous show of support for Syrians trapped in Hungary? A pause but no answer. Would he have advised her against that line, for fear it would ease pressure on others to assist?

Another long pause. With a million asylum applications this year and counting, Sutherland says, he “understands but regrets” growing German demands to cap its refugee numbers. “We can’t just have open borders,” he admits. “But do I regret anything [Merkel] has done? Absolutely not.”

When he meets leaders, Sutherland says, they can share Syrian refugees, in the spirit of European solidarity, or choose from three unpalatable alternatives: leave them on the beaches, lock them in camps or send them back to the hell they’ve escaped.

“Our only real alternative is to deal with this,” he says. “We’re talking about less than than 1 per cent of the total European population, about doing something that is doable if we got our head around it.”

‘Typical Irish bulls**t’

Ireland is playing its role but could do more, he says, pointing to the successful integration of Kosovo refugees in Carrick-on-Shannon as proof of what can be done when people are given ownership of migration.

Even setting aside the moral issue to save refugees, he says, Ireland has a geopolitical interest in bringing about an EU burden-sharing deal.

“Our primary issue has to be to keep the show on the road and integration moving forward,” he says. “If European integration collapsed tomorrow we would be the Skibbereen Eagle, bleating into the Atlantic, an irrelevant appendage on the extremities of Europe.”

Given his engaging personality and lightly worn intelligence, it’s not surprising that Peter Sutherland has a stand-out reputation in international circles. But not all are members of his fan club. In a poisonous 2012 profile the Daily Mail suggested that his considerable collection of national honours had given him an “armature of absolute self-belief and the certainty that he is on the side of history”.

It’s a point echoed by a former senior civil servant who worked with Sutherland in 1980s Dublin. The retired official praises Sutherland’s liberal migration stance but suggests that, if the mass immigration goes wrong, the Irish-born plutocrat can escape to a gated community in Switzerland.

“Typical Irish bulls**t,” snaps Sutherland. “That’s typical of the Irish, to sneer.”

Irish begrudgery is a constant companion for Peter Sutherland, a cross he carries with another Irish humanitarian high-flyer, Bono. The Irish swipes have left Sutherland operating a permanent self-censorship buffer, driven by an acute awareness of how things will play back home.

It’s a complex so deeply rooted that it’s difficult to discern which came first: the snide Irish begrudgery towards Sutherland’s undeniable achievements or his thin skin towards criticism.

The skin is particularly thinly stretched over his career at Goldman Sachs International, the investment bank’s UK subsidiary, where he has just finished up after 20 years as chairman. In September the investment bank announced a £2 million donation to aid Syrian refugees. Given total revenues of $40 billion in 2014, and a reputation for extracting profits from every kind of global instability, isn’t Goldman Sachs’s Syrian refugee contribution a bit of a joke?

“The only people who have ever raised the name of f***ing Goldman Sachs to me in this context of this debate are the Irish; it’s totally irrelevant,” he says.

But, given his belief in the moral obligation of states and their peoples to act in the refugee crisis, what of the moral obligation of the globalised business he helped foster?

“The private sector is very difficult to involve in this; they don’t want to be involved in a hot political issue, and this is a hot political issue.”

Given that he is still an adviser to Goldman Sachs, and has served on the boards of 13 major companies, has he been able to shake down contacts to help finance the refugee crisis response? “I’ve been trying to get the European round table of industrialists [involved] and World Economic Forum companies collectively to be involved . . . There’s no more I can do.”

After 35 years straddling public service and private industry, Peter Sutherland shows no sign of slowing down ahead of his 70th birthday next year. He still relishes being at the heart of world affairs – even if the knots are getting knottier than ever before. “Getting it in the teeth all the time to some extent goes with the territory,” he says. “But there is a certain degree of satisfaction in feeling that you may, in a minor way, be moving the barometer in a direction you agree with.”