Attorney general under Garrett FitzGerald by the time he was 35, Sutherland went on to a glittering career in international industry, banking and, in later years, as an advocate for dealing with the migrant crisis.
A devout Catholic, his death yesterday morning at the age of 71 at St James’ Hospital in Dublin, in the presence of his family, was greeted with sadness and a slew of warm tributes from political leaders both at home in Ireland and across Europe.
Yet, his critics say, he was the face and defender of big business and integration at the expense of ordinary citizens, taxpayers and nations, a charge he vehemently denied.
Survived by his wife Maruja, children Shane, Natalia and Ian, and 10 grandchildren, Sutherland had suffered ill health in recent years.
He suffered a cardiac arrest in London in September 2016 on his way to Mass at Brompton Oratory, and also survived throat cancer.
“He was substantially impacted by this and was in hospitals in London and Dublin since then,” his family said in a statement. “Despite great efforts by his medical staff and his own indomitable spirit, he succumbed to an infection.
“We are consoled that in his last year we were able to repay some of his love and kindness.”
Sutherland was born in Dublin in 1946 and, as the son of a well-known insurance broker in South Dublin, was sent to Gonzaga College.
He claimed later that the “hand of the Jesuits” influenced him greatly.
“He was a devout Catholic,” his family said. “This didn’t make him doctrinaire. Instead, it gave him a lifelong instinct for charity and volunteerism. It wasn’t just about writing the cheque — he wanted to be with people.”
He studied law in UCD before becoming a barrister. He was also on the legal team defending Capt James Kelly in the 1970 Arms Trial, and represented the owners of the Stardust nightclub in the inquiry that followed the disastrous fire there in 1981.
He unsuccessfully stood for Fine Gael in Dublin North-West in the 1973 general election.
He later said that this defeat “changed my life — if I had got into the Dáil, I would have given up everything”.
Under Fitzgerald, he was chosen as attorney general in the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in the early 1980s. As attorney general, he voiced strong concern over the wording of the 1983 Eighth Amendment, which brought him into conflict with some Cabinet ministers, including Michael Noonan.
In September 1984, he was nominated to be Ireland’s next EEC Commissioner and went on to occupy senior roles in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization).
He went onto become the chairman of Goldman Sachs International and also took on the chair of British Petroleum, having also served a period as chairman of Allied Irish Bank.
He received an honorary knighthood from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 for services to industry.
Despite making London his home, he maintained very strong links with Ireland.
In 2006, he donated €4m to a new law school in UCD that was subsequently named after him.
The same year he was appointed as an expert adviser on Vatican finances by Pope Benedict XVI.
President Michael D Higgins yesterday led tributes to Mr Sutherland, saying he learned of the news of his passing with great sadness and describing him as a passionate European.
“Throughout his career, Peter Sutherland remained deeply committed to peaceful co-operation and integration in Europe, promoting greater awareness of the importance and possibilities of Irish engagement in European decision-making,” said President Higgins.
“His loss will be felt most acutely by his family and friends, and as President of Ireland I wish to express my deepest sympathies to them.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar too paid a warm tribute to Mr Sutherland.
“He was a statesman in every sense of the word; an Irishman, a committed European and a proud internationalist,” said Mr Varadkar. “Throughout his life, he was a champion for individual and economic freedoms.”
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said Mr Sutherland enjoyed an “extraordinary career” and was a strong believer in rules based globalisation, as well as a committed European. He held a firm belief in the promise of the EU, and served as a European Commissioner in the late 1980s.
“I knew him as a compassionate, driven, global thinker who was always willing to challenge views,” said Mr Coveney. “His intellect was extraordinary, and he used his talents to be one of Ireland’s most influential people, in business, politics and across human rights globally.”
Ireland’s EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan, described him as a very distinguished European Commissioner for Competition from 1985 to 1989.
“Peter was probably Ireland’s most distinguished international statesman and leaves behind a rich legacy of achievement, whether in the legal or business worlds or, more particularly, in public service,” said Mr Hogan. “In all of the roles he performed, he did so with professionalism, enthusiasm and accomplishment.”
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin described Mr Sutherland as a “true patriot” who made an outstanding contribution to public life not just in Ireland but around the world.
“Peter’s dedication to public service was not only confined to his work here in Ireland,” said Mr Martin. “In his capacity as European Commissioner for Competition he revolutionised competition and trade laws. He was a true patriot who had a great love for his country irrespective of his success on the world stage.”