Peter Sutherland: A prop of substance with a love of mankind

His philanthropy was carried out with a focused interest and passionate commitment

It was in his latter years, when the lure of slow golf and long lunches with grumpy old men was compelling, that he threw himself into the intractable issue of migration at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable.  Photograph: Frank Miller

It was in his latter years, when the lure of slow golf and long lunches with grumpy old men was compelling, that he threw himself into the intractable issue of migration at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

Suds loved his rugby. He was a prop of substance. I had the privilege of watching him play for a combined Trinity/UCD team against a combined Oxford/Cambridge team on a frozen College Park pitch many decades ago. He, as they say, left nothing on the pitch and, like all commanding props, he drove forward relentlessly with a ferocious honesty and intensity. It is a widely accepted rugby truism that no player with a number above three on their back has the faintest idea what goes on in the front row – they just know that it has to go forward and build unstoppable momentum. And that is exactly what Suds consistently delivered throughout his illustrious career. The great Welsh and Lions fly half, Cliff Morgan, once stated that “rugby sweats the vice out of a man”.

Rugby, and his front row prowess, could almost have been a metaphor for Suds’s approach to life and, particularly, his philanthropy which he carried out with a focused interest and a passionate commitment. Philanthropy, which literally means “love of mankind”, is sometimes described as being about the three Ts – time, treasure and talent and, for a world-class businessman and statesman playing in the global champions’ league, the first of these – time – was often the hardest. And yet, whether it was the Sutherland School of Law in UCD, Goal’s work in India or The Ireland Funds’ Forgotten Irish Campaign in London, he continuously carved out large swathes of his time to visit projects and spend time with grantees and take a genuine interest in their work.

Struck a chord

The Forgotten Irish Campaign, which he led by example and which raised more than a million pounds, struck a particular chord with him. Perhaps it was because he was such an establishment figure and so accepted at the highest echelons of British and world business that he was particularly aware of those Irish in London who had not been so fortunate and whose lives had been marked by struggle.

They had come from Ireland in their droves in the 1950s and 1960s and been part of the great post-war reconstruction of Britain. Now in the twilight of their lives, many were dealing with issues of poverty and health and neglect.

Suds, meanwhile, was part of another generation of Irish migrants who were more at home in the boardroom than the boarding house. He sensed an ancestral debt and intergenerational responsibility and knew that the modern successful Irish in London stood on the shoulders of those who went before. He corralled support and galvanised interest. He leveraged his position and influence. He tapped people on the shoulder and wasn’t shy in asking. He believed that from those to whom much was given much was expected. He visited the projects, met and spent time with the recipients and listened to them.

As Seamus McGarry, secretary of the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith and trustee of the Ireland Fund of Great Britain commented: “Peter showed extraordinary understanding and sensitivity and he appreciated the significance and the urgency of the challenge. He carved out time and made the effort. On a number of occasions he also funded projects on a personal basis. He believed in ‘planting trees under whose shade he would not sit’.”

Migration

It was in his latter years, when the lure of slow golf and long lunches with grumpy old men was compelling, that he threw himself into the intractable issue of migration at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable – and possibly the most toxic topic in the world.

Responding to a request from UN secretary general Kofi Annan, he took on the role of UN special representative for international migration. The commitment was massive, the challenge daunting and the time and energy required would have felled a younger man.

In this, as indeed in all his philanthropy, he was driven by a deep sense of right and wrong and the moral imperative of the cause. Just as in the old rugby days, he threw himself into the issue, drove himself and others relentlessly and channelled his smouldering anger at a global injustice into challenging everybody to take action.

Despite the enormity and complexity of the issues, he never lacked belief and confidence in his convictions. There was a sense that this steely resolve came from a deep religious consciousness fine-tuned by his Jesuitical background. I once shared with him the five key principles of fundraising: 1. Believe in the value of your work; 2. Let your light shine before people; 3. Know your clients and be patient with their moral failings; 4. Manage your assets carefully; 5. Never forget to say thank you. I asked him if he knew the author and, of course, he did: Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits who wrote these words in the 16th century.

The great American sports writer, Grantland Rice, once wrote “when the one great scorer in the sky comes to mark against your name, he writes not that you won or lost but how you played the game”.

Suds, the prop of substance, played the game, and particularly his philanthropy, well, really well.

Kingsley Aikins, former CEO of The Ireland Funds (1992-2009)