Peter Sutherland who has died aged 71, was an Irishman bigger internationally than any Briton of his time.
A scion of the Dublin middle class and a modernist Fine Gaeler in the “just society” mould, he became Garret FitzGerald’s Attorney General at the age of only 35, just after he had taken silk.
It was typical of his self-confidence from the start that he gave me the first ever interview on the incendiary subject of extradition. I confessed to him later that it was a stumbling performance, but at least he gave it. And more to the point he later dispatched the INLA killer Dominic McGlinchey to a filmed border handover in little more than 24 hours.
For the rest of his life, he brilliantly exploited his expertise as a commercial lawyer, first in a series of stellar international appointments as the EU competition commissioner and then as the first director general of the World Trade Organisation, whose rules for better or worse, provide the context for Brexit.
After failing to win a Fine Gael seat in 1973, he never became a people’s politician. His later roles as chairman of Goldman Sachs International and BP put him at the centre of the debates on banking reform and ethical business generally. In these roles Sutherland remained the consummate insider, helping to rescue Goldman’s reputation after the crash and saving BP from possible disaster from ill-timed expansion and a disastrous oil spill.
In other capacities, he was a passionate public campaigner. He was chair of the Ireland Funds and a founder of the EU’s Erasmus Fund for students in which the UK may wish to remain.
As the UN Secretary General’s representative on the international refugee crisis Sutherland made the unpopular case on programmes like Question Time that western countries had the capacity if not the will to absorb the flow. No doubt his views were influenced by ancestral memories of the Famine.
As an Irishman, banker and sometime UK resident who had been made an honorary knight, Brexit was the denial of his worldview and much of his life’s work. I heard him denounce it in Oxford in 2016 shortly before he became seriously ill, in what he himself called ” a rant” over the hapless head of the former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers.
It is more than a pity that he will not be around to critique the progress of the Brexit negotiations and even to influence them, as an eminent Irishman and honorary Brit, with more than a foot in both camps and unrivalled international connections.
If proof were needed, Peter Sunderland’s career shows that an Irish background and education is able to produce a figure of international stature on a par with bigger states from the Netherlands to the UK or France and Germany.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London