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Thursday 15 November 2018

Peter Sutherland obituary: Ireland's best-known international statesman dies after long illness

Peter Sutherland
Peter Sutherland
John Downing

John Downing

IRELAND'S best-known international statesman, Peter Sutherland – credited with leading a successful drive for cheap air fares - has died after a long illness at the age of 71.

As EU Competition Commissioner in the mid-1980s he took on the heavily-regulated state-owned airlines and drove free competition which opened the door for low-fare carriers like Ryanair.  He also successfully battled against state subsidies in countries like France and blocked a number of big corporation mergers, earning himself the nickname “The Sherrif” in Brussels.

In a glittering career he was by turns a top-flight lawyer, Attorney General, Ireland’s EU Commissioner, head of the World Trade Organisation which delivered a landmark global free trade deal, and a leading light in international business and finance.

His successes were recognised by a host of awards and honorary doctorates from all across Europe, the USA and further afield.

A native of Dublin, Peter Sutherland, was educated at Gonzaga College, University College Dublin and King’s Inns, and quickly established himself as an accomplished barrister.  He had a long association with Fine Gael and Taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, appointed him Attorney General in June 1981, at the age of 35.

As Attorney General, he advised against the wording voted by the Dáil for the 1983 abortion referendum.  At the time he argued that it could lead to abortion becoming permissible in Ireland.

Peter Sutherland, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. Photo: Bloomberg
Peter Sutherland, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration. Photo: Bloomberg

Nine years later the Supreme Court ruled, in the notorious “X Case,” that the amendment did in fact permit abortion in certain limited circumstances.

Dr Fitzgerald had again chose him as Attorney General in 1982, and in 1984 caused a stir by appointing him Ireland’s EU Commissioner. He got the prestige post in charge of competition policy with wide direct powers to police and heavily fine big business.

During his four-year Brussels term he fought successfully to smash airline cartels which kept fares high. He often clashed with EU Commission President, Jacques Delors, over French state subsidies to enterprises like the car-maker Renault, and his hardline stance led corporations to seek advance permission for big mergers for the first time.

Peter Sutherland tried his hand at Dáil politics just once with disappointing results. In February 1973 he stood for Fine Gael in four-seat Dublin North West, but polled less than 2,000 votes and was way off the pace for a seat.

At the end of his EU term in 1988, he returned to Ireland and focused on business instead of politics. He became chairman of Ireland’s biggest bank, AIB, and also was appointed to the boards of several companies.

Yet he retained his interest in EU affairs and was a regular visitor to Brussels.  In June 1993 he accepted an invitation to head the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) which would later become the World Trade Organisation under his very successful leadership.

At the time hopes of an ambitious global trade agreement were mired in a series of battles, notably between Europe and the USA.  But inside six months, he turned this around and his work in achieving compromise was hailed internationally, including deft use of world media to pressurise the various countries’ governments to cut a deal.

The world trade deal was probably the highlight of his career which afterwards again took a greater business focus as chairman of Goldman Sachs and British Petroleum. But he still remained active in the EU and in other international organisations, taking a keen interest in the crisis surrounding migration into Europe, where he advocated liberal policies and respect for human rights.

Peter Sutherland was married to his Spanish-born wife, Maruja, in 1974 and they had two sons and one daughter.  A keen sportsman, he loved rugby captaining Landsdowne RFC, and was also a keen tennis player.

He had a number of health reverses in recent years. In 2010 he spoke of his battle with throat cancer, and over a year ago he suffered a major heart attack which curtailed his activities.

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