Profile: Champion of free trade: Peter Sutherland, Gatt's secretary-general, seems close to achieving a real breakthrough. But he may still need to knock heads together, writes Alan Murdoch

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Irish pride is bursting this week end, because the two men who have done most to ease the deadlock in negotiations over the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade are both Irish.

Peter Sutherland, the urbane lawyer and former European Commissioner, has presided, as the new Gatt secretary-general, over the makings of a breakthrough in the seven-year- old Uruguay Round. And it was only last November that Ray MacSharry, then the hard-nosed Agriculture Commissioner who replaced Sutherland at the Commission, led the European team that achieved agreement with Washington on what had been the thorniest issue of all - farm subsidies.

Last week's Tokyo G7 accord approving tariff cuts from steel to beer and pharmaceuticals may have been oversold, amid claims that it resolves 80 per cent of the outstanding trade issues. Some of the toughest nuts of all still have to be cracked - among them world trade terms on agriculture, services and textiles. But the Tokyo summit has at least created some real optimism that an outline Gatt deal could be in place by the uncomfortably close US deadline of 15 December.

Sutherland, though, deserves credit for ensuring that the trade talks are still on the road at all. In his new job for barely a month, Sutherland's first efforts were aimed at concentrating the minds of the mighty on the scale of the task. Privately he met trade ministers and heads of state from John Major to Felipe Gonzalez, applying his considerable powers of persuasion to instil a sense of urgency.

In public, he read the riot act to would-be wreckers with ominous warnings of the 'serious consequences' should Tokyo fail to produce a breakthrough.

It helps that he is both one of the most ardent and clear-minded advocates of the free trade ideal. His most winning line in the seduction of domestically beleaguered G7 chiefs was that Gatt means jobs, a theme they picked up last week with embarassing and occasionally inconsistent fervour. Sutherland produced a study suggesting that 2 million jobs in G7 countries alone could be created by a Gatt accord. Major duly followed on cue, predicting 300,000 new UK jobs over 10 years.

His recent spell as chairman of Allied Irish Banks has apparently reinforced his belief in the sense of

freer trading relationships. 'Protectionism is not a recipe for creating employment, but rather a recipe for inefficiency,' he said earlier this month.

He considers the idea that protectionist measures can protect jobs in the long term 'entirely spurious'. He added: 'The collapse of free trade would have the most serious impact on employment.'

He has also warned against a growth of bilateral 'managed trade' accords between the likes of the US and Japan, suggesting that, if a deal is fixed, Gatt could in future have a stronger role.

The obstacles in the way of Sutherland achieving a deal before the December deadline are enormous. A breakdown is still possible over steel and agriculture. He is especially anxious to hold the line on the EC-US farm deal against French and Irish wishes to renegotiate, aware that if it unravels, the Gatt clock will run out on him.

His own initial reluctance to take on the job was put down to fears over the disruption it would have on a growing family - he has three teenage children. He may also have suspected that the task was well-nigh impossible.

A hint of this came in an amusing speech to his recent Dublin farewell reception. He described being ushered into a room in the Geneva Gatt HQ to be shown several tables groaning under mountains of documents: 'This is just some of what you'll need to read,' he was advised.

He compared its technical impenetrability with economics jargon: 'After a couple of hours of it, if you're not confused then you haven't been listening.'

After his initial 'thank you but no thanks', his Irish and EC backers came back and tried again. Their keenness was not surprising - few could be as well qualified as Sutherland for the post. As European Commissioner for the previously inconsequential portfolio of competition, he seized on previously ignored EC Treaty powers to break down illegal price-fixing and curtail state subventions. He also showed he understood Machiavelli's dictum about the occasional necessity for cruelty.

Plain speaking, that fundamental of Irish politics, helped. A Brussels colleague recalls that in one early confrontation with EC transport ministers, Sutherland - to use the Irish vernacular - 'went through them for a short cut' over air passenger transport restrictions.

'He said, 'I'm going to take each and every one of you to court'. It was a question of being able to stand up to them. He was using language which was different to that of the usual Commissioner - he tore strips off them. 'Who is this guy?' they were saying afterwards.'

But an equally valuable asset is his ability to mix with any company. An entertaining raconteur, liked across ideological divides, his natural charm and genial manner can stop disagreements turning nasty.

The four years in Brussels were exacting, made so by Sutherland's supportive leadership of a Competition Directorate that welded diplomatic skill, toughness, and imagination into a team of cartel-busting 'Untouchables'. 'The whole team were picked in Peter Sutherland's likeness,' recalls a Commission ally. They were described as rough as diamonds and sharp as nails.

Sutherland had earlier won a name at home in Ireland for quiet competence even when those around him were determined to lose their heads. Twice between 1981 and 1984, he advised his masters in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that the proposed 'equal right to life' amendment to the Constitution was legally flawed. Catholic Conservatives wanted the constitutional measure to protect 'the right to life of the unborn'. He warned that its interpretation would be open to legal challenge in the courts.

Ten years on, Sutherland's prediction was proved painfully correct in the appalling case last year, in which the Government took a 14- year-old rape victim to court, precipitating two more amendments to the Constitution.

Sutherland presents a laconic self- effacing front. He hails from Dublin upper middle class stock, was educated at Gonzaga College, a top- notch Jesuit school, then University College Dublin, before joining the bar. Attracted by its 'Just Society' move away from conservatism towards secular social democracy, he joined Fine Gael and in 1973 ran for the Dail in Dublin West. He was not elected and thereafter stuck to a backroom role.

He shied away from electoral contests but became one of the closest advisers to Dr Garret Fitzgerald, the party leader. Some say that the lawyer's move to the Commission in 1985 was factor in the break-up of the Fitzgerald-led coalition with Labour.

'In Brussels, Sutherland cut a great dash. He was urbane, witty and erudite, and had a beautiful Spanish wife,' observes an occasional opponent. He assiduously cultivated new contacts, wooed the support of MEPs and, when not working Trojan hours, enjoyed the social circuit. He eats well, appreciates a good wine and for relaxation reads - as many as three books in a weekend.

There was an Irish press clamour for Sutherland to be kept on as Commissioner, given his enormous success in Brussels in making the single market work. Gushing commentators tipped Sutherland as Ireland's prospective first Commission president. But Charles Haughey, the incoming premier, let him know privately that party imperatives dictated that he had to leave. Irish patronage meant a party appointment.

There are some who believe Sutherland could make a comeback on Brussels stage. Others believe he is the only figure capable of reversing the seemingly terminal decline of his old party. He is still only 47, a fact many overlook when reviewing his political CV. (His career, after all, began early - he was a junior defence counsel in the 1970 arms trial, when two cabinet ministers were acquitted of charges of plotting to smuggle arms to beleaguered Northern Ireland Catholics.)

Last month, MacSharry presented the new Gatt chief with a gavel 'to help knock heads together', and personally pledged to help with advice whenever needed. With OECD estimates suggesting the Gatt deal is worth dollars 200bn ( pounds 134bn) in its effect on world trade, the stakes are high. As MacSharry told Sutherland, a Gatt deal could prove 'the most important world economic event of the second half of this century'. But it is not in the bag yet. Peter Sutherland has a challenge ahead.

(Photograph omitted)