Monday 21 January 2019

Sutherland won friends, influenced many people

Peter Sutherland's ability to win over people of all nationalities was what marked him out as a global figure, says Dan O'Brien

MR GLOBALISATION: Peter Sutherland at home in 2016. Photo: David Conachy
MR GLOBALISATION: Peter Sutherland at home in 2016. Photo: David Conachy
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Peter Sutherland died a week ago. It is for obituary writers and future biographers to pen a full assessment of his achievements and his contribution to national and international life. This column is not an attempt to do that. It is, rather, a personal reflection on some aspects of his life and character; what my encounters with him said about how powerful people operate; and, more generally, about how the world works.

I met Sutherland fewer than 10 times over a period of more than 20 years. The first time was as a student in UCD in the mid-1990s. He was then at the height of his career, having just stood down as head of the World Trade Organisation after steering to conclusion a global deal to free up cross-border commerce. He had been widely touted as a successor to Jacques Delors as president of the European Commission, but had lost out, as often happens in EU politics, to a lowest common denominator candidate.

That evening he spoke to a group of students and then stayed on afterwards to chat. Despite having risen to become a significant figure on the world stage, he had acquired none of the haughty aloofness that many people who make it to the top display. He listened and engaged with (overly opinionated) students in the same way I would see him engage with the global great and the good in more august settings in the future.

Watching how people behave towards those who are of use to them, and those who are not, tells a lot about person. It said a lot about Sutherland.

The second time I recall meeting him was in London around the turn of the century when we almost physically bumped into each other. I was walking along a street when, despite his considerable bulk, he sprang from the back of a large chauffeur-driven car in front of the offices of BP, the energy company whose board he then chaired.

Somewhat startled, I instinctively introduced myself (he had no reason to remember a student he had met briefly years earlier) and, as had been the case on the previous occasion, he chatted easily before disappearing into BP's palatial offices. As was always the case subsequently, matters Irish were discussed.

At that time he had again missed out on the top job in the European Commission, which was up in 1999. A number of factors had worked against him on that occasion, including that it was the turn of a candidate from the left of the political spectrum for the job. It didn't help his cause that there was more than a little reluctance on the part of the then Fianna Fail government to back a Fine Gaeler for such a high-profile position.

If he had no luck in his political career in 1999, his financial fortunes were another matter. After stepping down from the WTO, he took on a number of roles. One was with the investment bank Goldman Sachs.

As had been the case since the firm was founded in the 19th Century, it was then owned by its partners, of which Sutherland had become one. In 1999 the bank went public. Each of its 200-odd partners received shares worth more money than any individual could spend in a lifetime. Sutherland had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time.

Another encounter took place later at Davos in Switzerland, where the global elite gather every January to discuss the state of the world. I was asked to give a presentation on economic matters to a group of multinational bosses from Europe and the US.

Sitting in the front row was Sutherland, who, while not quite bossing the bosses, clearly had a leadership role in the group, something that could not have been easy given the out-sized egos of corporate titans.

Of his many abilities, it was this innate feel for the political dynamics of any group, regardless of nationality or context, that most impressed me.

For those of us who don't operate at the level he did for so much of his life, the capacities to sense instinctively what the bottom line is for multiple stakeholders, to keep so many balls in the air at the same time and to be able see threats coming from around corners are something of a mystery.

These are not skills that can be acquired. He was fortunate enough to be born with them and use them well. That brought him success as a member of Cabinet (as attorney general), as a European Commissioner and in corporate life.

But those skills really came to the fore when he headed the World Trade Organisation and its forerunner organisation in the 1990s in Geneva. When its near 200-member countries come together to discuss the incredibly arcane and technical rules of international commerce it more resembles a madhouse than a meeting of officials - a near infinite number of configurations of members, in endless meetings, dealing with so many issues, means that no one person understands everything.

Getting this disparate group to agree anything makes deal-making in Brussels look easy and it is for that reason that no new WTO deal has been brokered since Sutherland guided the "Uruguay Round" of talks to a successful conclusion in 1993.

As has been widely reported over the past week, he was described as "Mr Globalisation" for steering that trade round to a successful outcome. Although it wildly exaggerates the role of any one individual in a worldwide process, it was catchy and it stuck. His association with the globalisation process was such that, at his funeral last Thursday, Fr Noel Barber SJ wondered if his support for it had blurred his view of its undoubted downsides.

I can't say for a fact that this is wrong, but I doubt it is correct.

Sutherland was not just clever but also a man of conviction who knew that some issues had few champions and that there will always be more people to make the case for a national focus than an international one. As a man of action, he knew that if others weren't going to make an upbeat and enthusiastic case for globalisation, he would have to, even if it led to a great deal of highly personalised criticism.

As is often the case, one remembers people most for acts of kindness. So it was with Sutherland. I moved back to Ireland in 2010 after a long spell abroad to take up a role in daily journalism. Those recessionary times were grim and it sometimes felt like jumping on to a sinking ship. One day, out of the blue, a number came up on my phone that I didn't recognise. A woman's voice said she was calling from Sutherland's office and asked if I could take a call.

He came on to say that he thought it was great to see Irish people moving home and pitching in to the national conversation, particularly when the country and its economy were at such a low ebb. There was nothing more involved. He had no angle, just words of encouragement. Having never had as much as a social drink with the man, it seemed extraordinary that someone with so much going on in his life would take the time to make such a call. From what others who encountered him say, that sort of generosity of spirit was entirely characteristic. It is only one of many things for which he will be remembered.

Sunday Independent

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