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Studies: Remembering Peter Sutherland

The Summer 2020 issue of Studies is dedicated to the distinguished Irish businessman, barrister and politician Peter Sutherland, who passed away in 2018. Sutherland, a former alumnus of Gonzaga College, was (in the words of the editorial) “a steadfast supporter of this periodical, whose purpose and value as a Christian voice in Irish public discussion he well understood”. He was also an occasional contributor to Studies. His last piece, in autumn 2016, was on Brexit, to which as a committed European he was deeply opposed.

The lead article in this issue is the text of a lecture on ‘The future of liberal democracy’ by Chris Patten, Lord Patten of Barnes. Lord Patten gave the lecture in February to honour Peter Sutherland, at the invitation of Studies. He begins by noting Sutherland’s great stature – perhaps “the most influential Irish person ever”, especially given his role in the the formation of the World Trade Organisation. “There are few public figures,” Lord Patten remarks, “for whose values and opinions I have ever felt more sympathy.”

One of the core values which both Sutherland and Patten shared is the importance of preserving liberal democracy. This form of government, guaranteeing “the responsible exercise of liberty” through an independent judiciary and a constitutional settlement, is under severe threat these days. Alarm bells are ringing in many places around the world in recent times. As in the 1930s, there has been a turn towards “dog-eat-dog nationalism”. Democracy is in crisis. Over 60% in the UK and 55% in the US express dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy – “the highest level of democratic discontent on record,” according to one research centre. What went wrong?

According to Patten, it was the financial crash of 2008 that triggered the current triumph of ‘illiberal democracy’. Its ill effects were exacerbated by a culture of deregulation which led to over-borrowing and the spiralling of debts. Also, a toxic culture of social division, characterised by racism on one side, classism on the other, showed up the weakness of party systems in a number of places.

There were other, related, factors which contributed to the dissolution of democratic commitment. Among them were: the impact of immigration on communities already under economic pressure; technological advances facilitating the rapid spread of fake news, conspiracy theories and prejudice; and a profound shift in the world’s economic balance, especially with the growth of China’s significance. In the last section of his lecture, Lord Patten pays close attention to the dangers which the ruling Chinese Communist Party pose to the uptake of liberal democracy. The West is responsible too, however, and social and economic policies in old democracies cannot be excused from blame. “When the levels of unfairness in a society become too great,” Lord Patten asserts,

it is difficult to persuade people that the arrangements for governing them are optimal, and almost certainly more of a challenge to persuade them that they inhabit what de Tocqueville called ‘a democracy of manners’. If ‘left-behinds’ feel victims of a system which not only hammers their hopes but looks down on their opinions and aspirations, it is not easy to attract their civic loyalty.

The issue of Studies also carries three other tributes to Peter Sutherland. Garret Sheehan, a classmate in Gonzaga College and a former judge of the High Court and of the Irish Court of Appeal, recalls personal memories of his long friendship with Peter. Noel Barber SJ describes what life in Gonzaga College was like in its early days – Peter began his education there in 1954, only three years after it opened its doors – and he provides many anecdotes from the following decades as Peter rose in his profession and public life. The longest of the three, by Paul Gallagher, like Peter a former Attorney General, is about the development of the European project. He assesses Peter contribution and decisive commitment to political integration in Europe, and he notes his firm belief in the process of globalisation, although he knew that it would create its own ‘dislocations’. For Peter, Gallagher comments, globalisation “was always a way to empower the poor”. Sadly, the political will was not always there to respond adequately to the problems. Gallagher concludes:

[Peter] gave fully of himself to the causes in which he believed and most emphatically to the European cause. When he acted, results followed. For Peter, not caring was not an option. He cared greatly, he made his choices and he acted bravely and decisively.

One further reflection on the legacy of Peter Sutherland is to be found in this issue. It is Charles Lysaght’s review of a biography of Sutherland, The Globalist: Peter Sutherland – His life and legacy, by John Walsh.

Apart from the articles on Sutherland, there are also articles on the Irish 19th century Catholic architect George Goldie, the 20th century Irish poet Thomas McGreevy, and changes in the culture of the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs.

For more on the summer issue of Studies or to purchase a copy, see their website »