Irish man of nerve is front-runner to settle global trade accord: Peter Sutherland, the former Irish EC commissioner, is likely to be the new Director General of Gatt next month. Alan Murdoch in Dublin assesses his potential to save the world trade system

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The Independent Online
THE EYEBROWS of the Dublin press corp rose discernibly as Douglas Hurd ended a summing up of Anglo-Irish discussions on Bosnia and Northern Ireland with a ringing, quite unsolicited endorsement of the candidacy of Peter Sutherland for the post of director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (Gatt).

With the backing of the European Community and the United States, Mr Sutherland, 47, is a virtually unassailable front-runner for the job. If he gets the nod to replace the Swiss incumbent, Arthur Dunkel, at the end of June he will face an uphill struggle with precious little time to succeed.

The qualities that have won such wide support in just three weeks since he agreed to let his name go forward include an unquestioned commitment to the free trade ideal, a capacity for long hours and a talent polished in his barrister years for mixing amicably with all sides to an argument. Mr Sutherland will take the job only on the understanding that he has authority, from all sides, to knock heads together and push the new world trade accord through.

His four years from 1985 as the EC competition commissioner highlighted an unfailingly acute understanding of law, and cool nerve when facing powerful international cartels and hard-headed corporate combatants such as Lord King, then head of British Airways, as he and Britain's Lord Cockfield turned the single market from airy aspiration to legal fact.

Mr Sutherland was initially reluctant to be nominated, citing concern about disruption of family life. But he now realises a breakthrough in the tortuously difficult progress of the Gatt Uruguay Round (now 28 months behind schedule) will either come quickly or not at all. The American negotiating mandate is running out. To accord with Washington's deadline a deal has to be in the bag by 15 December.

Mr Sutherland went to a Jesuit school and was called to the bar. In the Seventies he was drawn into Garret Fitzgerald's vision of a new liberal Ireland and became a key backstage adviser. In 1981 he was the party's policy director, became attorney general, and was appointed to the post again after the fall of Charles Haughey's disaster- prone government in November 1982, where he stayed until 1985.

A minister who was a close colleague then says Mr Suth erland's top-drawer legal mettle is encapsulated in an abortion law opinion he gave Mr Fitzgerald before the 1982 'equal right to life' referendum. According to one observer: 'He advised the government not to proceed with the wording before it. He said it was unsound and would not lead to a prohibition on abortion holding if a future Supreme Court test case occur red.' He was vindicated 10 years later amid the furore of last year's case of a pregnant, 14- year-old rape victim.

Colleagues in Brussels say his first year there was exacting but decisive. 'He used powers in the Treaty of Rome, and mobilised the Commission's rights to uphold it more than in the past.' Key Sutherland decisions forced repayment of un authorised aid back to national governments (as in the set-to over the state subvention given to British Aerospace when taking over Austin Rover).

Previously ignored powers under Article 90 of the Treaty became a blunt instrument the commissioner wielded to free competition for computer modems, leading to the transformation of EC telecommunications markets.

Muscle was exerted through levying big fines that made all member states sit up and take notice of the new potency of EC law. Key anti-trust actions saw 15 petrochemical producers fined for operating a polypropylene cartel. Fines on smaller corporate offenders meant corporate lawyers had to learn, and counsel compliance with, the newly enforced rules.

Along the way, Mr Sutherland in effect persuaded penalised governments to become disciples of his free-trade gospel. British respect was won over many years, from his enforcement of Irish extradition legislation to witty and clear- headed contributions in television discussions.

Jacques Delors was among those who came to respect his determination as his own man. When EC budget reform threatened to collapse, he went round the table at a meeting giving a tongue-lashing to each 'disloyal' commissioner. Mr Sutherland was one of just two present to escape his wrath.

Political loyalties required Charles Haughey to replace Mr Sutherland with his own party colleague Ray MacSharry at the end of 1988. Mr Sutherland has recently completed a concise official review of the single market's progress to date, listing 38 specific measures needed to secure its effectiveness.

(Photograph omitted)