Mary Robinson was (and is!) a woman and, just as importantly, the first President of the Republic of Ireland whose candidacy was not backed by Fianna Fail. Her successor, Mary McAleese is originally from Northern Ireland and thus, like Robinson, some kind of outsider. Both women expanded the idea of the Irish presidency and, in some small measure, helped refine the notion of what it means to be Irish in a modern european context.
So you can see why some felt that David Norris, the independent Senator representing Dublin University in the upper house, would make an excellent candidate to succeed Mrs McAleese. These may be grim economic times but Ireland could make some kind of declaration about itself by electing europe’s first openly gay head of state. Perhaps that, plus Fianna Fail’s disgrace, helped explain why such a seemingly improbable candidate could become the early frontrunner in the race to Phoenix Park. (Conversely, one should not be surprised if, contemplating President Norris, some folk felt oh-so-wittily that, Sure, wouldn’t it be grand if a white, heterosexual, Roman Catholic man could be President of This Modern Ireland, you know?)
Well that latter party will get their wish now that Norris has been hustled or bullied from the race largely because he loved not wisely but too well. The proximate cause of Norris’s apparent disgrace is a couple of letters he wrote to an Israeli court 15 years ago asking for clemency to be shown to Norris’s former lover (in the circumstances, perhaps a more accurate word than partner) Ezra Nawi, an Israeli activist (that is, severe critic of the Israeli government*) with whom Norris had a relationship 25 years ago, who was convicted of, to borrow the American term, the "statutory rape" of a 15 year old boy.
Most of the coverage of the case that I’ve seen has hyped the "rape" aspect of the matter and downplayed the "statutory" part. And with good reason since, oft-forgotten in the subsequent brouhaha, this was, and was accepted as such by the Israeli court, an episode of consensual sex. People may still find this an unsavoury episode but the Israeli court plainly accepted that though in a technical sense a crime had been committed there was no malice involved and no real victim. If that had not been the case one would have expected Nawi to spend more than just a month in prison. But that’s what happened.
In other words, David Norris wrote a letter defending a friend and former lover on trial for committing a victimless crime. And for this so-called lapse of judgement, 15 years ago, the Irish press has decided David Norris is unfit for the presidency. Well obviously! Much better to select some warmed-over never-was from one of the traditional political parties!
True, Norris might have been thought too dangerously flamboyant and entertaining for a largely, but not quite exclusively, ceremonial position. I should disclose that in my (very) occasional encounters with him I’ve found him an uncommonly nice, jovial fellow if also, admittedly, one with an unpardonable enthusiasm for Joyce.
Nonetheless, this nano-scandal has been swathed in daft, sanctimonious nonsense. Never mind the Irish Independent’s coverage (often snide though it has been), consider Fintan O’Toole’s piece in yesterday’s Irish Times. Apparently Norris’s mistake was less sending his letter and more sending it from the wrong office. Apparently it’s worse to use official letter paper for these matters and worse, in Norris’s case, to use it for a personal plea than, as dozens of other politicians have done, on behalf of a constituent justly ensnared by the criminal justice system. That’s just part of doing business as a TD, looking after them that sent you to Dublin. Heaven forbid you send a letter – on the wrong paper! – to a foreign court as a character witness for a man on trial for a victimless "crime"! Truckle for votes, not for friendship!
As a tireless campaigner for once unpopular – that is, liberal – causes Norris was a bolder candidate than most applicants for the Presidency. Perhaps he’d have been undone in the end anyway, brought down by his own beliefs and his own flair, nay appetite, for publicity. That would, however, have been a less dismaying end to his campaign than being forced out for the disgrace of helping a friend in need. ‘Twas not to be, however, and Mr Norris’s train to the Aras has been cancelled.
*Whose views I do not share and this post should not be interpreted as support for them or, for that matter, an endorsement of Norris’s own views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
UPDATE: Gavan Titley, an old if dangerously lefty friend from Trinity days, has a good piece in the Guardian about it all too.