Senator David Norris

Irish Senator David Norris was in my office a few weeks back and gave an impressive presentation on why he should be the next president of Ireland.

It was heartening that he recognized the importance of Irish America to the future role of whoever is successful in the “race for the park” as the Irish call it, because the official presidential residence is in the Phoenix Park.

Since returning to Ireland Norris had cemented his role as the front-runner in the race and was the bookmaker’s favorite.

Until this week that is, when a 10-year-old interview with journalist Helen Lucy Burke came back to haunt him.

The interview appeared in the now defunct Magill magazine and had previously been flagged as deeply controversial, but now that Norris is running for president it is doubly so.

At first glance the interview looks bad. Norris, who is gay, is talking about a range of taboo subjects, including boy/man sex as the Greeks perceived it. He seemed to exonerate some milder forms of child abuse by saying that being raped and murdered was a much worse fate.

After hearing Norris on an Irish radio show, however, I am inclined to agree with him that he should be judged on his record, not on a frankly bizarre and deeply academic interview he gave over a decade ago.

He explained that he was presenting the historical view of such issues, not his own viewpoint, and I believe him on balance.

There has never been the slightest suspicion that Norris is other than what he had proudly proclaimed himself to be, a gay man who has fought for civil rights for his community and many other groups too.

Norris has been a tireless worker for human rights in Ireland, including gay rights and children’s rights, and he is a colorful character, a Joycean scholar, always glib with a sometimes outrageous quote, something that was bound to come back and haunt him I suppose.

But the man that I met in New York a few weeks back was deadly serious on how he saw his role as Ireland's first citizen, and I believed him. He is passionate, forceful and, above all, idealistic on how he sees his country at a time when Ireland is badly in need of such leadership.

Ireland has been wonderfully served by her last two presidents, Mary Robinson, who established the diaspora as a major theme in her presidency, and Mary McAleese, who along with her husband Martin McAleese did an incredible job on bringing Northern Ireland’s Unionist community in from the cold in the south as well as many other groups in need of a voice.

Norris promised more along those lines, as well as being a committed cheerleader for Ireland.
Now he has been hit with the “when did you stop beating your wife” line that is almost impossible to refute.

This is not a scandal where someone was actually abused. Rather it is the overly pedantic musing of an academic who should have known better than to touch such a third rail of politics, but did anyway.

I hope he can survive this and prosper. Ireland, frankly needs diverse voices like his.