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Monday 16 July 2018

The brightest star has dimmed, but Peter's light will be with us forever

Peter Sutherland pictured at the UN office in Geneva in 2015. Photo: Getty
Peter Sutherland pictured at the UN office in Geneva in 2015. Photo: Getty

Niall FitzGerald

When Peter Sutherland banged his gavel on the table for the final time in Geneva on December 15, 1993, the world shifted on its axis. Thus began the great expansion of trade, termed globalisation, and the enhancement of the lives of billions of people across the world, not least in Ireland.

Of course, all momentous events come from the efforts of many. But the Uruguay Round would not have been completed without the unique blend of courage, charm, guile, and intellect, in combination with the bullheaded nature of a prop forward, which was 'Suds'.

When he was appointed the youngest ever EU commissioner, and championed the role of open markets and competition, he drove hard through the rucks and mauls which were holding back the creation of a truly free market. He was fearless in confronting the big beasts whether Mitterrand, Thatcher, Kohl, and indeed his own boss Delors. Perhaps in the many accolades he received the one of which he was proudest was to be referred to by Margaret Thatcher as "that man in Brussels".

His commitment to openness as a means to opportunity has no better legacy than the Erasmus programme, which gave students the right to study anywhere across the community. What a president of the Commission we missed.

Peter understood the essence of being a chairman. Find the talent to run the business, insist on clear values, create the environment internally and externally to allow the executive to succeed, guard the corporate reputation. This he did superbly well at BP and Goldman Sachs, yet generously allowed others to sweep up the credit.

We served on two boards together, Ericsson and WEF, where I observed at first hand how insight, integrity and a very Irish sense of humour could sway any argument and disarm all opponents.

Read More: Sutherland's 'voice, dedication and leadership will be missed'

Even more powerful than his forensic legal mind was his unremitting pursuit of what was right.

He was hugely generous in his philanthropy, but equally in giving his time both to individuals and institutions. The leadership he provided at Bilderberg, European Round Table, Trilateral Commission and, indeed, the Ireland Fund has shaped policy and people in ways which were often profound. The time he gave to governments and international institutions was phenomenal and he never shied away because it was tough... sorting out the finances of the Vatican.

The recognition he received, including his honorary knighthood in 2004, and its equivalent from Belgium, France, Spain, the Vatican and many others, he wore lightly and without pretension. He had a multitude of doctorates from universities around the world yet he never sought to be Dr Sutherland.

When Peter was appointed chair of the LSE, it coincided with my time as chairman of the British Museum, and we joked that this was the final phase of the Irish takeover of British Establishment institutions.

His contribution to corporate and public debate in the UK was unequalled. He was fearless in setting out positions on a range of issues and did so with expert knowledge and deep passion. In recent times he laid out the moral and practical case for migration powerfully and persuasively.

More privately he led by example with The Forgotten Irish Campaign. I can think of no other who has done more for the standing and self-esteem of the Irish in Britain. Current and future generations of the Irish diaspora will reap the benefit.

It was not all good....he supported Leinster and he stole my jokes. We both had Garret FitzGerald as our tutor at UCD, but he clearly left a deeper impression on the future Taoiseach. Peter walked with me through my garden in Sussex and was unforgiving if I could not identify every plant and shrub by their Latin names... and all while drinking my wine. He was adamant that Munster only won the Heineken Cup because Leinster were in transition.

One afternoon as we sat with a glass in front of the TV for a Leinster v Munster game, my then six-year-old was dispatched from the kitchen to offer us bowls of sustaining crisps and nuts. Peter hesitated then pointed at his tummy and said: "I better not, Gabriella, as I am quite fat." She stood back, and in the way of six-year-olds, said: "You are indeed the fattest man I have ever seen", and for a moment I was in the ascent. Peter roared with uncontrollable laughter.

Suds never failed to remind me that he was younger, by a few months, and now that will be forever so.

There are so many memories to treasure and we take such pride in what he achieved for Ireland and what he did for the world. We all feel a little of the pain which has engulfed Maruja, Natalia, Ian and Shane. The brightest star has dimmed but its light will be with us through the ages. Farewell, and thank you, dear Peter.

Niall FitzGerald is former chairman and CEO of Unilever. He has served on the boards of numerous businesses, charities and foundations, including as chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, the Foundation Board of the World Economic Forum and as chairman of the UCD Michael Smurfit graduate business school advisory board, and patron of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce

Irish Independent

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