He graduated with a BCL from UCD in 1968 and practised at the Bar between 1969 and 1980 before being appointed Ireland’s youngest Attorney General by then-Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald in June 1981.
Presciently, he advised against FitzGerald against inserting an anti-abortion amendment into the Irish Constitution in 1983, pointing out that the wording, giving equal rights to the unborn child and to the mother, was ambiguous and unacceptable.
Sutherland was AG during what he called a 'difficult time' both economically and because of the North. He has said he didn’t enjoy that period of his career when he represented the state, both in extradition cases and in the Section 31 prohibition of Sinn Féin on RTE broadcasts.
Subsequently, he made a particular contribution in international law after his appointment as EU Commissioner for Competition between 1985-89, when he was key to the opening up of the telecommunications, air transport and energy sectors across Europe.
In that role he was also responsible for granting permission for the Irish Financial Services Centre in Dublin 1.
Sutherland’s establishment of the Erasmus (European Regional Action Scheme for Mobility of University Students) programme for undergraduates had a profound and beneficial effect on the lives of thousands of Irish students by opening to them the doors of European universities. He later described Erasmus as his greatest achievement.
As a free market liberal, Sutherland believed that growth can only be provided by the individual and not by the state. He was an advocate for globalism because he believed it countered a narrow nationalism which avoids global responsibility.
“We had the potential, for the first time ever in history, to have a single global economic dynamic integrating across borders,” he told UCD Connections magazine in 2010, describing the intense lobbying to bring the Chinese and Russians into the system and the eventual 1995 creation of the World Trade Organisation as a force for open economies.
Former Taoiseach John Bruton has said that Peter Sutherland contributed to a quarter of a century of global prosperity through his leadership role in the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations, involving 130 nations, with rules that protected both the weak and the strong.
“His talents brought him great success but he was always conscious of his responsibility to help others and to give back to society,” said John Bruton.
PR consultant Rory Godson of Powerscourt Group was a close friend.
Godson said “Peter did more to change our world than any other Irish person. Hundreds of millions of Europeans benefited from his work at the European Commission while billions have had the chance to lift themselves from poverty because of his leadership of the World Trade Organisation.
“He was profoundly religious, totally uxorious and intensely patriotic: faith, family, fatherland. Through all his works, he was physically present, putting himself on the line for his team and his belief, whether on the rugby field 50 years ago or on the refugee-strewn beaches of southern Europe in his last years. He was a man of great physical courage with a brilliant mind and a gift for making and keeping friends.”
The late Peter Sutherland showed a remarkable loyalty to his old school Gonzaga and the congregation at his funeral was told that the Jesuits are very grateful for his generous loyalty.
The Gonzaga senior choir, conducted by Rosemary O’Brien, sang at the funeral.
Principal celebrant Fr Noel Barber SJ spoke of the many blessings Peter Sutherland had received in his life, and the blessing that his life was to many people. The funeral Mass, at the Church of the Sacred Heart in Donnybrook, Dublin 4, was concelebrated by nine priests including Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor.
The congregation heard that early on, a Gonzaga teacher remarked of the young Sutherland: “When he sees something he wants, he goes for it and he gets it.”
When a classmate criticised a teacher for his use of corporal punishment, the young Peter sprang to his defence saying “he has to biff us, that is his job”.
And Fr Barber gave a gentle verbal biff of his own when he said that Peter Sutherland’s genuine advocacy for the cause of refugees sometimes ‘blurred his view’ of the downsides of mass migration.
A very old school friend gave the eulogy. Former criminal lawyer and judge of the High Court and Appeals Court, Mr Justice Garrett Sheehan said that there was one thing of which Peter was very sure: that he could not have achieved what he did, without the great love of his Spanish-born wife Maruja.
Maruja’s support was critical to every one of his many accomplishments and critical also to Peter being able to maintain, develop and sustain an ever-widening circle of friendship.
Mr Justice Sheehan said that Peter Sutherland was an internationalist in the best sense of the word, and he understood, appreciated and sometimes marvelled at the creative energy of Irish business people, both here and abroad.
He was never cynical about politicians but always optimistic and had a high regard for those who entered what he regarded as the most difficult of professions.
When Peter Sutherland was appointed as a European Commissioner, he moved quickly to brush up his language skills Mr Justice Sheehan said. He threw himself into the job early, because if there were cliques forming, then he “wanted to be in the most important one”.
“Peter was always awake, alert, his lamp was always lighting. He did not squander his opportunities, he did not squander time” said Mr Justice Sheehan.
And he recounted that during a conversation about literature with a Chinese dignitary, the visitor declared that some books are so satisfying there is no need to eat after reading them.
The roly-poly Peter responded “oh, would you please send a list of those books to my wife, she would be very interested!”
Peter had known for some time that he had been given very special talents, Mr Justice Sheehan said, but he didn’t take these gifts for granted. He worked for them and improved them, knowing that they had been given to him for a purpose.
The congregation at his funeral Mass heard that Peter Sutherland could be a difficult and demanding captain. But the guard of honour outside the church provided by old boys of both Lansdowne and UCD rugby clubs, proved the enduring loyalty he also inspired.
That his political friendships were across the board was shown in the huge numbers who arrived to pay their respects including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, President Michael D Higgins, his wife Sabina and aide-de-camp Colonel Michael Kiernan, Chief justice Frank Clarke, Attorney General Seamus Woulfe, former Taoisigh Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny; former Italian prime minister Mario Monti; Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin; Ministers past and present including Michael Noonan, Paschal Donohue, Alan Dukes, Phil Hogan, Gemma Hussey, John Gormley, Eoghan Murphy, Charlie McCreevy, Richard Bruton, and Eamon Ryan; MEP Mairead McGuinness; from the judiciary George Birmingham, Peter Kelly, Eoin McCullough, John MacMenamin, Michael Moriarty, and John Hedigan; Ken Murphy of the Law Society; TCD academic Sean Barrett, businessmen Denis O’Brien, Declan Ganley, Tony Spollen, Harry Crosbie and Paul McGuinness with his wife publisher Kathy Gilfillan, journalists Dearbhail McDonald, Tommie Gorman and David Davin Power, auctioneer Mark FitzGerald and charity worker John O’Shea.
Since his death, many people have spoken about Peter Sutherland’s generosity of spirit and his many unsung acts of kindness. He is remembered as someone who took a great interest in his friends and was always delighted to see them do well.
Many have commented on his gifts for diplomacy and networking. Economist Dan O’Brien wrote that he had “an innate feel for the political dynamics of any group, regardless of nationality or context.”
Peter Sutherland was generous with his great wealth and he was the chief benefactor, along with five leading law firms, for the purpose-built state of the art €27 million UCD Sutherland School of Law, which opened in September 2013.
While Sutherland was instrumental in the drive for a law school of international repute, he initially resisted the honour of having it named after him.
At the opening of ‘the Sutherland’ he said: ”We can take pride in our legal system…it was the result of teaching, of history, of tradition, and of a character that was endowed by generations, many of whom have been through UCD. Collectively, the alumnae of UCD and of the law faculty in particular, have contributed greatly to this country.
“Education is one of the most important benefits we can pass on to future generations. The rule of law underpins the cohesiveness and prosperity of society, making a sound legal education one of the most important we can deliver,” he said.