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A damning report, yet 'Suds' escapes the heat . . . once again

This week's damning report on the 2005 explosion at BP's Texas City oil refinery in the US cut short chief executive Lord John Browne's career at the head of Britain's largest company.

However, BP chairman Peter Sutherland seems to have emerged entirely unscathed from the debacle.

The report on the March 2005 explosion, which killed 15 workers and injured a further 170, by former US Secretary of State James Baker didn't pull any punches. He concluded that BP's US refineries were an accident waiting to happen.

A few days before the report Browne announced that he would quit as BP chief executive next July, 15 months ahead of schedule.

But where was Sutherland, who has been BP chairman for the past decade, while all of this controversy was swirling around the company?

A bit like T.S. Eliot's fictional cat McCavity, it seems Sutherland wasn't there.

This isn't the first time that Sutherland has skirted with controversy.

In December 2000 the Moriarty Tribunal heard how AIB had written off £130,000 of a £170,000 loan to former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in November 1993.

Sutherland had been chairman of AIB from 1989 to mid-1993.

FitzGerald had used the loan to buy shares in Shannon-based aircraft leasing company GPA of which he had been a director.

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These shares were virtually worthless after GPA crashed and burned following its failed flotation in 1992.

Sutherland was also a director of GPA at the time, something which seems to have been erased from his official CV.

So just who is Peter Sutherland?

A product of Gonzaga, the elite Jesuit school on Dublin's southside and a UCD law graduate, he will be 61 later this year. He is married to the Spanish-born Maruja and they have three adult children.

His first appearance in the public eye came in 1970 when as a 24-year old junior barrister he formed part of the late Captain James Kelly's defence team in the Arms Trial.

He then ran as a Fine Gael candidate in the 1973 general election. While Fine Gael was returned to government in coalition with Labour, Sutherland lost his deposit.

'Suds' was just another bright Fine Gael-leaning barrister when Garret FitzGerald appointed him Attorney-General in his short-lived 1981-2 government. When FitzGerald was returned to power in December 1982 Sutherland was re-appointed.

The highlight of Sutherland's second spell as Attorney General was, somewhat ironically, given his earlier role as a defence counsel in the arms trial, the extradition of Dominic McGlinchey to Northern Ireland in March 1984 to face murder and other charges. This was the first time a republican terrorist suspect had been sent back to the North to face trial.

Unfortunately, McGlinchey was acquitted the following year and sent back to the Republic, an outcome which merely reinforced the reluctance of Irish judges to extradite wanted republicans.

Being appointed Attorney-General represents the pinnacle of their careers for most barristers. After three or four years as AG they would move on to a guaranteed slot as a High Court judge.

Not Sutherland. Only 35 at the time of his first appointment it was merely to be a stepping stone for even greater things. In 1985 he was appointed Irish EU Commissioner.

Once in Brussels he quickly impressed. He landed the key competition portfolio. One of his decisions while on the Commission was to block the consortium bid for Irish Distillers in 1988. The sight of the Irish commissioner standing up to major international drinks groups GrandMet, Allied Lyons and Guinness did Sutherland's international profile no harm at all.

His name was canvassed as a possible EU Commission president in 1989.

However, Fianna Fáil declined to re-nominate him because of his Fine Gael links and sent Ray MacSharry to Brussels instead.

He was also briefly mentioned as a candidate to succeed Romano Prodi as Commission boss in 2004, and even travelled to Paris to discreetly lobby French president Jacques Chirac. However, the word back from the French was an emphatic 'non'.

On his return to Ireland at the beginning of 1989 Sutherland quickly landed a sackful of blue-chip directorships, including the chairmanship of AIB as well as seats on the CRH and GPA boards.

However, the first sign that Sutherland was destined for international business superstardom came in 1990 when he was first appointed to the BP board, for long Britain's most valuable company until it was overtaken by banking group HSBC this week.

By now in his mid-forties Sutherland seemed to have successfully made the transition to directordom. In fact he was only getting into his stride.

In 1993 he was appointed director general of the GATT, the predecessor of the World Trade Organisation. During his two years at the WTO he successfully shepherded the Uruguay round of tariff negotiations to a successful conclusion, an achievement which may yet turn out to be Sutherland's finest hour.

This success propelled Sutherland's reputation into the stratosphere. After leaving the WTO he was immediately re-appointed to the BP board, stepping up to become chairman in 1997. He also became head of US investment bank Goldman Sachs' London operations. When Goldman floated in 1999 Sutherland received shares worth an estimated ?140m.

While Sutherland was reappointed to the AIB board after stepping down from the WTO in 1997 he quit again in 1997. Then, in 2001, he was appointed a director of Royal Bank of Scotland, Britain's second largest bank and its seventh most valuable company, which owns Ulster Bank and First Active in this country.

Having seats on the boards of two of the top ten most valuable UK companies shows just how successful Sutherland has been in scaling the heights of the British corporate establishment.

His status as a fully paid-up member of the City of London establishment was sealed when in 2003 he received an honorary knighthood.

During his first eight years as BP chairman, Sutherland and Browne made a formidable combination. BP has made a series of acquisitions - Amoco in 1998, Arco, in 1999, Burmah Castrol in 2000, and Veba in 2001, which transformed the former nationalised industry into a truly global player.

Unfortunately, as this week's Baker report demonstrated, this breakneck expansion had a dark side.

And it wasn't just the Texas City explosion. There had already been an explosion at BP's Grangemouth plant in Scotland in 2000, where fortunately no-one was killed, while in March 2006 more than 200,000 gallons of crude oil leaked when its Alaskan pipeline burst.

Just for good measure the company's energy traders have been accused by the US authorities of trying to rig oil and gas prices between 2002 and 2004.

Sure, BP timed the oil price cycle perfectly, buying assets at the bottom of market which then soared in value when the oil price almost quadrupled between 2001 and 2006.

The downside seems to have been a cavalier attitude to safety as the company pursued ever increased profits, regardless of the human cost - with the Baker report detailing slashed maintenance and capital spending budgets.

Those who have been on the receiving end of his negotiation style use various adjectives such as 'tough' and 'pugnacious' to describe his technique.

However, those who know him off-duty describe a well-rounded individual who still enjoys an occasional pint at Lansdowne rugby club.

Despite the exalted company in which he moves he hasn't forgotten where he came from and last month donated ?4m to the UCD law school.


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