Peter Sutherland: A gifted administrator and humanitarian

Former AG played crucial role in domestic and European politics with guile and charm

In this video Peter Sutherland, who has died age 71, addresses the migrant crisis during his time as special representative of the United Nations Secretary general for migration and development.

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Peter Sutherland had many gifts.

Chief among them was a gift for friendship. He remembered his friends, thought about them often, was available to them when they were in need.

He remained close to his earliest school friends in the national school in Monkstown, and afterwards in Gonzaga.

As he made new friends, he understood that friendships, like gardens, need cultivation, and he would often phone them, out of the blue, just to keep in touch.

This gift served him exceptionally well in his legal, political and business careers. Networking was something he did as a matter of course, without other motives.

Allied to these soft skills was a grim determination to succeed in anything he took on.

He was a distinguished front row forward for UCD and for Lansdowne, had no fear of combat, and did what was necessary to ensure his side got possession of the ball. He followed Leinster and Ireland games closely, no matter where he was in the world

That combative quality of the front-row forward stood to him as a barrister, in the turf battles that were part of his job as European commissioner, and in defending embattled commercial interests, like those of BP, of which he was chairman.

He was always emotionally engaged with his work, never a detached observer of it.

Attorney general

Although we both attended UCD, Peter was ahead of me, and our first real encounter was when Garret FitzGerald formed his first government (a minority administration) in mid-1981, and appointed Peter as attorney general, a post he again held from 1982 to 1984.

Writing of Peter’s appointment, Garret FitzGerald said in his autobiography that Peter had “accepted, without hesitation, an appointment which cut his earnings to a fraction of their previous level”.

In March 1984, he demonstrated a remarkable combination of legal and executive ability when handling the extradition, in the absence from the country of most ministers for St Patrick’s Day, of Dominic McGlinchey of the INLA to Northern Ireland, all within 24 hours of his capture by gardaí after a shootout near Newmarket on Fergus.

Later in 1984, he was appointed to the European Commission. As commissioner he had responsibility, at various times, for education, competition policy, State aids, and relations with the European Parliament.

Peter was especially proud on his initiative in setting up the Erasmus Student Exchange programme, which has had a profound and beneficial effect on the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Europeans.

In the wake of the passage of the Single European Act, which allowed majority voting on measures needed to establish the EU single market, he negotiated a new legislative procedure which enhanced the role of the European Parliament.

As competition commissioner, he was aggressive in pursuing cases of unfair state aid, an activity which sometimes brought him into conflict with the commission president, Jacques Delors, with President François Mitterand and with Mrs Margaret Thatcher.

26/06/1993: With Ray MacSharry, former EC agriculture commissioner. Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times
26/06/1993: With Ray MacSharry, former EC agriculture commissioner. Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times

Personality skills

But his most remarkable achievement was as director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade . He got the agreement at a meeting of 160 nations in Marrakesh in 1994 to the establishment of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

He had the necessary combination of guile, charm, and menace to be able to use the gavel to conclude discussions that might have dragged on interminably.

The WTO established supranational panels to arbitrate trade disputes, something “sovereignty loving” countries like the US had hitherto been unwilling to accept. It is a major achievement in the building of a rules-based international order, which has contributed to a quarter-century of global prosperity. It is now under threat from the Trump administration’s “America First” agenda, and from Chinese protectionism in investment policy.

In later years, Peter Sutherland was active in bodies such as the Trilateral Commission whose goals include protecting the open global trading system, which the WTO embodies. He repeatedly defended the global, rule-based, system against unilateralism and bilateralism on the part of bigger states.

Taming nativist and nationalist trends was a daily battle of Peter’s life.

As a recent resident in London, he became an outspoken critic of the long march towards Brexit initiated by the Conservative Party. As a self-described internationalist, he was exasperated by the nostalgic English nationalism that motivates the Brexiteers.

He will be remembered by many as a banker, as chairman of AIB and as chairman of Goldman Sachs International. Banking is a public service, based on trust, but operated by private interests. He attributed Goldman Sachs’s survival of the sub prime crisis to the fact that it operated a realistic system for valuing its assets.

Apart from the illnesses that afflicted him in recent years, Peter Sutherland lived a life of great good fortune, something for which he was intensely grateful to his maker.

31/01/1989: Former EC commissioner Peter Sutherland (second from right) is presented with the ICEM/ASI European of the Year award by President Patrick Hillery. Photograph: The Irish Times
31/01/1989: Former EC commissioner Peter Sutherland (second from right) is presented with the ICEM/ASI European of the Year award by President Patrick Hillery. Photograph: The Irish Times

Catholic faith

He had a deep Catholic faith, imbued by the Jesuit fathers in Gonzaga.

He was not afraid to testify to his religious faith in public.

In a recent lecture, Peter quoted Pope Francis, with approval, to the effect society revolves “not around the economy, but around the sacredness of the human person”.

It was this belief in the dignity of each person that drove Peter to become involved with the cause of involuntary migrants and refugees. In an address to the International Eucharistic Congress, he stressed that migration must be seen as a moral issue, a position to which he adhered strongly in recent controversies about refugees coming to Europe fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. He strongly supported chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming stance.

He became the representative of the UN secretary general on migration issues and also, at the pope’s request, president of the International Catholic Migration Commission.

16/03/2015. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
16/03/2015. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

He visited, and saw for himself, the appalling conditions of, the camps for refugees. He spoke out about this, movingly and repeatedly, and was highly critical of the governments of rich countries, who failed either to take in refugees themselves or to provide adequate assistance to the countries, like Italy, Greece, Turkey, Jordan and Bangladesh, who have no choice but to do so.

His very last tweet, on September 6th, 2016, just before he became ill, was about asylum seekers in Europe. He wrote: “Conditions for Greece’s migrant children shocking”.

Apart from his many talents, his other great good fortune was finding his wife , Maruja. As a student from Reinosa in Cantabria in northern Spain, Maruja came to Dublin to perfect her spoken English.

In this pursuit, she attended a dance in the Old Belvedere RFC clubhouse on Angelsea Road, where she met Peter. She was a constant presence by Peter’s side, she kept him grounded and, together, they gave their children a good sense of proportion about life.

To Maruja and to his children Natalia, Ian and Shane, I extend heartfelt sympathy at this time of great and irreplaceable loss.

John Bruton is a former taoiseach and former leader of Fine Gael

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