Tuesday 16 October 2018

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.

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