The Globalist: Peter Sutherland – his Life and Legacy
by John Walsh (HarperCollins, £20.00)
This review comes with a caveat: the writer was a classmate and friend of the late Peter Sutherland. That said this is a carefully researched, well organized and superbly written first biography in which the author John Walsh skillfully contextualises the life and times of his subject.
There are so many interesting and important aspects to Peter Sutherland’s life that at times this reviewer was left breathless. How did he manage to achieve so much ? How did he keep going at such a hectic pace until that fateful Sunday morning in September 2016 when he collapsed on a London pavement on his way to Mass at the Oratory?
The major milestones of Sutherland’s life are well known. First he was Ireland’s youngest Attorney General and outstanding in that role. This was followed by a period in Brussels as EU Commissioner for Competition during which he oversaw the deregulation of the airline industry. Later he took on the Education brief and established the Erasmus programme.
A short time later he became the director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) where he was to oversee the signing of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations.
As UN Special Representative for Migration he devoted the final ten years of his life to improving the plight of migrants. In between he was Chairman of British Petroleum and Chairman of Goldman Sachs International.
And then there was his appointment to the Vatican. Peter was particularly chuffed to have been asked to advise on the reforms necessary to ensure the future reputation of the Vatican Bank. He delighted in telling his friends that he had stayed in the Vatican guesthouse and joined Pope Francis in the queue for breakfast.
Peter had a self deprecating sense of humour and among his many outstanding qualities was his ability to be present to the moment. This is well illustrated by an event which the author recounts. This took place in Beijing when Peter Sutherland was there on behalf of BP to mark a further stage in that company’s relationship with the Chinese State Oil Company.
Part of the public relations for the occasion was a 15-minute photo call with the President of China who asked Peter what he liked to read. Peter replied politics and history. The President added philosophy, and went on to say that he found some books so satisfying that he did not need to eat afterwards.
To which Peter replied: “Oh, Mr President, could you give me the names of some of those books, my wife would be very interested in them?” The President burst out laughing, and a 15-minute photo opportunity turned into a real meeting, which lasted long over the allotted time.
The finale to that story is that when Peter Sutherland returned to London he arranged for a book he had recommended to be translated into Cantonese and sent as a personal gift to the President.
In the course of his extensive research, John Walsh, an Irish journalist based in Dublin, draws on a wide range of interviews with major political and business figures including former Taoiseach Brian Cowen who, in the course of a generous tribute, spoke about Sutherland being “a man of the highest integrity who was never a partisan politician”.
Peter Sutherland was also a big man with a generous heart who always said that he would not have achieved any success without the support of his wife Maruja.
He was also generously warm in his praise for those who worked with him in Brussels in particular Richard O’Toole former President of the Union of Students in Ireland, who later became his right hand man at the World Trade Organisation.
While this book will not be the final word on Peter Sutherland, John Walsh has made an excellent start on recreating an extraordinary life. He certainly delivers a compelling read.
Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan, the only Irish solicitor called to the Irish Bar, retired from the Court of Appeal in 2016.