Peter Sutherland will be remembered as a man of many talents which were all put to use across a long life, in different careers and across the globe, with a dazzling brilliance that was extraordinary for its breadth and longevity. Few Irishmen have left a bigger impact on European and international affairs and none has served his country better. His passing is to be lamented for it is truly a loss out of the ordinary. It marks the end of a gifted generation of Irish Europeans who shaped not only their country but their continent: Garret FitzGerald, Jim Dooge and himself, Peter Sutherland.
It was natural that he should be involved in the IIEA from its inception. He welcomed its establishment in 1991 and immediately agreed to become a member of the inaugural Comité d’honneur. From the outset, he took an active and energetic part in its deliberations, notably on the creation of the Economic and Monetary Union. More recently, he was engaged with his customary dash and commitment on Brexit.
In fact, one of his last public engagements with the Institute was his keynote address to our Brexit Conference a month before the UK referendum. Nobody in that campaign matched his eloquence, expertise and passion. More’s the pity. His performance that day exemplified what was missing in the “Yes” campaign within the UK and exposed the root cause of its ultimate failure: the heart did not match the head. His did.
He had participated with vigour in all the EU referenda in Ireland and played a central role in the Nice and Lisbon campaigns, during which he took few prisoners. He was as combative in public life as he had been on the rugby pitch. At the end of his life he brought that same determination to dealing with global migration, a mission he undertook at the request of the UN Secretary General and on which he spoke so movingly in Europe House on a number of occasions, the last of which was in September 2016.
He will be remembered for many accomplishments: his time at the Bar, his sojourn soon afterwards as a perspicacious Attorney General, his skill in creating the World Trade Organisation and his many other roles in national and international business. But he will be best remembered for his years as a member of the European Commission to which he had been nominated by the then Taoiseach and his close friend, Garret FitzGerald. His immense talent was instantly recognised by Jacques Delors who put him in charge of Competition Policy, which he single-handedly created and so transformed the European economy, giving life to the Single Market and pleasure to the travelling (and tourist) publics of Europe.
He seemed happiest and most at home in Brussels and it was no secret he hoped to succeed Delors as Commission President. It was not to be and we can only wonder at what might have been if the European Council of the day had shown the same courage and panache as its predecessor in appointing Jacques Delors. It was to be Europe’s loss.
Yet for all his internationalism, and Europeanism, he remained intensely local. He contributed generously to his school, Gonzaga College, his University, UCD, and to many other charitable causes in Ireland. His devotion to things Irish we know from his long and intense engagement with us in the IIEA. We deeply appreciated that commitment. And we will miss him for it and, more particularly, for his friendship when things got tough.
Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.