The most glittering CV of any Irishman in business
Peter Denis (‘Suds’) Sutherland was born in Dublin in 1946. The son of a well-regarded insurance salesman, he was educated by Jesuits at Gonzaga College.
After studying law at University College Dublin, he joined the Irish bar, where as a young barrister he acted in the 1970 Arms Trial, successfully defending James Kelly, an Irish army officer accused of shipping weapons to the IRA.
He met his beloved wife Maruja when she was a Spanish exchange student in Dublin. One of those also acquitted was the finance minister sacked by Taoiseach Jack Lynch, future Taoiseach Charlie Haughey.
Sutherland stood unsuccessfully to become a Fine Gael TD in 1973 in Dublin North West. Former Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald had been a tutor at UCD to Peter Sutherland in the 1960s so when he became Taoiseach in 1981 he appointed him Attorney-General, one of the youngest ever to hold the position.
As attorney general, he voiced strong concern over the wording of the 1983 Eighth Amendment, which brought him into conflict with fellow Cabinet ministers, including Michael Noonan.
In 1984 he was appointed Ireland’s European Commissioner. At 38 he was, by far, the youngest ever European Commissioner. Hitherto, the post had been a sinecure for Irish politicians at the end of their careers or a reward for services rendered – usually to their party. Sutherland changed this radically and pursued an aggressive deregulation policy which included ending the price fixing cartels between airlines, known as the Open Skies policy, and which led to today’s cheaper airfares.
He also pursued telecoms monopolies.
He also pioneered the Europe-wide student exchange programme know as Erasmus when he held the Education portfolio under Jacques Delors shortly after he first became a European Commissioner.
As Competition Commissioner he believed rules based cooperation among countries was the best way to avoid trade wars and international conflict.
He was at one time spoken of as the obvious candidate to succeed Jacque Delors as President of the European Commission when he stepped down in 1995, a post he coveted, but it was not to be as he had not held any high elected office in his own country.
In 1994, as head of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), he led the successful talks on a new multilateral trade agreement, the Uruguay Round, which earned him nickname the father of globalisation. He had persuaded 123 countries to agree new rules on agriculture and textiles, as well as services, intellectual property and a mechanism for resolving trade disputes.
In 1995 he stepped down as head of the World Trade Organization, the successor to GATT, to begin an even more lucrative new career in business. He chaired BP, the UK’s largest company, from 1997 to 2009 and headed Goldman Sachs International, the London- based global arm of the US investment bank, from 1995 to 2015. He used his knowledge of diplomacy, regulation and statecraft – as well as his lawyer’s forensic skills, his charm and his undoubted networking and negotiating talents – to help companies win deals and stay out of trouble.
He certainly managed to stay above the fray when any of the companies or organisation he chaired, or on whose boards he served, got into trouble ranging from AIB to RBS to BP to Goldman Sachs.
He was a non-executive director at Royal Bank of Scotland from 2001 to 2009 during its near collapse under the leadership of Fred Goodwin.
He left BP in December 2009 just months before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 people and led to massive legal costs.
He was also in the late Libyan dictator Muamar Gaddafi’s tent when former British prime minister Tony Blair signed BP’s controversial gas deal in 2007.
He was chair of the London School of Economics when it was emerged the university had taken a gift from Saif Gaddafi, the Libyan leader’s son. LSE chief executive Howard Davies was forced to resign. Mr Sutherland stayed on. He received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 for services to industry.
In 2006, he donated €4m to a new law school in UCD that was subsequently named after him.
The same year he was appointed adviser on Vatican finances by Pope Benedict XVI. His title was Consultor of the Extraordinary Section of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See.
In 2016, the year of 1916 centenary celebrations in Ireland, he reflected on his own life-long support for ever closer European co-operation.
“I always believed in the taming of nationalism. I’ve seen too much of it in my own country,” he said.
Tone deaf to party political concerns about immigration he told a House of Lords committee in 2014 that part of the EU’s mission was to “undermine the homogeneity” of nation states by welcoming greater numbers of migrants.