Sunday 20 January 2019

'Suds' was a proud Irish giant who strode upon the world stage

Peter Sutherland. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins
Peter Sutherland. Photo: Gareth Chaney, Collins


Even if Peter Sutherland, who has died aged 71, had done nothing else in his action-packed life, he would be well remembered as the man who successfully led a drive for cheap air fares across the European Union.

As EU Competition Commissioner from 1984 to 1989, he earned himself the nickname 'The Sheriff' as he took on the heavily regulated state-owned airlines and opened the door for low-fare carriers like Ryanair. He also successfully battled against state subsidies in countries like France and his tireless cartel-busting work was recognised when he was named 'European Person of the Year' in 1988.

He was Ireland's best-known international statesman of his generation, with a huge reach in business and politics during a glittering and varied 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.

In his later years, he was an outspoken advocate for the rights of migrants and worked for over a decade on this issue as a UN special envoy. His many successes were recognised by a host of awards and honorary doctorates from all across Europe, the US, New Zealand and further afield. For all of his life, he was a passionate advocate of greater EU co-operation and Ireland's strong role in that family of nations.

Announcing news of his death, Mr Sutherland's family stressed his love of family, deep Catholic faith and devotion to Ireland. They also cited "his belief in the European project as a route to peace, prosperity and justice for all".

Peter Sutherland's astute legal and political judgment can be seen in retrospect in his role as attorney general. He had unsuccessfully advised against the 1983 abortion referendum wording, arguing that it would lead to abortion being admissible. This view was borne out by the Supreme Court 'X-Case' ruling in 1992.

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

After his EU stint, he focused on Irish business interests. But in June 1993, he was back on the international stage as head of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which became the World Trade Organisation under his very successful leadership.

Here he defied the odds and inside six months, mainly by deft use of the world media, he successfully pressurised the various governments to cut a global trade deal, ending several years of deadlock. This was the highlight of his career. Afterwards, that career again took a greater business focus as he became chairman of Goldman Sachs International and of British Petroleum plc.

In both politics and business, he bestrode the world stage as a giant, with considerable ability, wisdom and courage. Widely known from his student and rugby-playing days as 'Suds', he was a passionate sportsman, who lost count of the number of times he broke his nose on the rugby field.

He bore some health reverses in recent years with courage and dignity. But he never recovered from a heart attack, suffered 15 months ago in London.

As news of his death broke, his family spoke of his devotion to his wife, Maruja, his three children and 10 grandchildren. They spoke of their sadness at his passing but showed justifiable pride at his many achievements.

Irish Independent

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