If you went in search of an individual who personified many of the main strands of Irish history you couldn’t do much better at the moment than David Norris, the first gay man to run for president of Ireland.
Polls show him ahead and bookmakers currently have him favorite to become Ireland’s next president in the election to be held in November.
He is a senator in the Irish parliament and a Joycean scholar of world repute. Most Irish people already know him, or they think they do, which can amount to the same thing. And they clearly enjoy his company, which was evidenced recently when he was made Grand Marshall of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in Portlaoise in County Laois.
Over 10,000 people turned out to cheer him on the day, and Norris, 66, was deeply moved by the warmth of their greeting. This was rural Ireland after all, not the rarefied enclaves of upper crust Dublin.
“A lot of people would say that Laois is a very conservative, rural farming county,” Norris, who was in New York and Boston this week for a series of high profile public engagements to promote his candidacy, told Irish Central.
“Well, they were handing up their children to shake their hands, it was wonderful. Rural Ireland is supposed to not want to have anything to do with me, but my country people in Laois took me to their hearts.”
To date seasoned political observers in Ireland have been divided over the nature of Norris’ appeal, but it’s becoming clear the professorial figure with the clipped tones and an Anglo Irish background is somehow striking a populist note that appears to be resonating with the public.
Perhaps it’s because the Irish tend to love a man or woman who takes on the Establishment and wins. It may not matter to them that Norris’ landmark victory helped deliver equal rights for gays in Ireland: what matters is that he won.
“I am running on my own strengths. I believe the Irish people know me and that’s my strongest suit. They know my track record, they know all the campaigns I’ve been involved in, and they know the issues that I have been involved in.”
Irish presidential campaigns can be surprisingly bruising but Norris, who is running as an independent candidate, tells Irish Central he will be equal to the task. “There have been plenty of dirty tricks played already and stuff has surfaced here and then, some of it just untrue, some of it misunderstood, some of it direct lies and I have dealt with it.”
The secret to his appeal, for the moment, may be that he is running as an independent. “I regard it as a strong point in my favor in the public imagination that I’m not a party nominated candidate. There were some whispers from some of the political parties a time ago, but in the unofficial conversations we had it was made clear to me what the price would be to join them. I would not do so, because I believe there is enough disillusionment and cynicism among people all over Ireland without me adding to it.
“Allowing people to say, well there you are after all he said about being independent and the need for independent voices in Irish politics and especially in the role of president, at the first opportunity he abandons his principals on the sniff of a job. I’m not that kind of person.”
Born of an English father and an Irish mother, Norris was raised in Dublin and attended Trinity College where he distinguished himself as a scholar and later as a professor. An amalgam of distinctive Irish heritages, ironically enough Norris may be one of Ireland’s closest facsimiles of James Joyce’s universal hero Leopold Bloom (he was actually born in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo).
When Norris was a student in Trinity most people dismissed Joyce’s work, to the point where he took it upon himself to rehabilitate the writer’s reputation. His decades long efforts succeeded; nowadays it’s hard to find an Irish public house without Joyce’s portrait on the wall.
Now as an Independent candidate Norris must win nominations from the county councils in order to run and this represents his biggest battle. It’s believed Mairead McGuinness will be seeking the Fine Gael nomination at a party convention in May, and the Labor candidate is likely to be a toss up between Michael D. Higgins and Fergus Finlay, with the former being the more likely contender. Fianna Fail meanwhile has not named any candidate, but Brian Crowley MEP is said to be interested. But even at this stage it’s hard to imagine the parties fielding a game-changer candidate with the same wattage as Norris.
Since it’s no longer permissible to be bluntly homophobic in public, some implacably opposed critics have found themselves reduced to describing Norris with code words like “flamboyant,” or “unrepresentative” and even “alien.”
But Norris is none of those things: he’s a native Dubliner, a member of the Irish Senate since 1987 and as at home enjoying a traditional music session as any other Irish punter. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the intensity of the opposition to his candidacy in some quarters.
Whilst the political parties publicly profess to keep an open mind about Norris’ candidacy, in the words of a famous Seamus Heaney poem, those minds may well be as open as a trap. In County Longford this week, where Norris gave a well-received presentation to the County Council to support his bid, his entreaties to the councilors quickly ran afoul of the political machine.
Fine Gael councilor Paddy Belton told the gathering his party has instructed party its members to actively oppose Senator Norris. Later in a statement to the Longford Leader this week a Fine Gael party spokesperson said, “Fine Gael will be running a candidate in the Presidential election.
All members of the party will be asked to actively campaign for our candidate, who will represent the ethos of the party. The party believes, therefore, that it would be inappropriate for elected Fine Gael representatives to lend their support, in whatever fashion, to any other candidate.”
It may not matter what they think of him. The Irish political machine has been struggling to respond to a new era of renewed political populism that saw the voters deliver a political earthquake this year. The Irish Establishment’s tendency to set a conservative course may once again find itself wildly out of kilter with the public appetite for change.
Cometh the hour, cometh the candidate. The Irish have always loved a good story and Norris’ one of triumph over adversity may be very hard to beat. It is difficult now to see how any last minute candidate will be able to dislodge his growing allure in the public imagination.
“I think that in some ways I represent the diversity of modern Ireland,” he tells Irish Central. “When I was young man it was assumed that everyone was a white heterosexual Roman Catholic. They weren’t, but that’s what it looked like. Now we have this wonderful vibrant community of different interests and diversity and I think my election will copper fasten the message that in Ireland we are a vibrant community that values it.”