In the early 80’s the Hot Press, Ireland’s leading magazine of politics and rock music, had this to say on the campaign to decriminalize homosexuality:
“Irish people have nothing against Gays. They like him. They think he’s funny.”1
This neatly encapsulated the suppression of Gay culture at that time in Ireland. Senator David Norris was almost the only man in public life – certainly the only one in politics2 – openly declaring his homosexuality and campaigning for his rights. It was greatly due to his perseverance and intelligence – perhaps also, his charm and wit – that homosexual acts were eventually decriminalised.
Things have come a long way since. Up until yesterday, Senator Norris was probably the frontrunner in the race to become Ireland’s next President. Yet now it looks as if his campaign may be over.
It was revealed that in 1997, Norris’s former partner Ezra Yizhak Nawi3, an Israeli human rights activist known for his support of Palestinians, was convicted in Israel of sex with another male below the age of consent. That might not have reflected so badly on the Senator, few after all would hold someone responsible for the crimes of an ex, but he had chosen to write an appeal to the Israeli court (PDF) on behalf of Nawi for clemency.
Compounding the problem, he wrote the appeal on Senate headed paper. This is damaging because it is reminiscent of other scandals where members of the Oireachtas (parliament) have attempted to interfere in due process on behalf of friends or constituents. It makes him seem exactly what people believed he was not – just another politician. However this may really be more a problem of perception. While a politician making representations to a court or judge in Ireland would rightly be seen as an attempt to exert improper influence, an approach to a foreign court – where no improper influence is possible – is an entirely different matter.
Some have called it an ‘error of judgement’ to speak out on behalf of a convicted paedophile, but that seems to imply that he should have known better because he might want to run for President one day. It was an immensely difficult judgement call; his only other real option was not to try to help a friend and former partner. It may have been the less wise choice, but it was the most selfless one.
And it too is perhaps mainly a problem of perception. It appeared in the context of an earlier attempt to derail his campaign, by opponents who recirculated an interview4 he’d given in 2002, in which he seemed to argue against a hard-and-fast age of consent. He claimed the remarks were taken out of context, and people seemed to generally accept that, but his decision to support someone convicted of statutory rape brings his views back into question. Is it true that he doesn’t see too much wrong with sex between consenting males even if one of them is underage according to local law? Some would see that as a reasoned moral outlook.
I think though that most would reject it as simplistic, and argue instead that there needs to be a ruthlessly strict lower limit on the acceptable age for sexual activity. While it may be unfair on those who reach maturity early – or indeed, on those who reach it late – it seems greatly preferable to the the opportunities for exploitation that ambiguity could allow.
But we don’t know if that is – or was – Senator Norris’s actual belief. Poor or biased reporting may have misrepresented his opinions, he may even have been the victim of homophobia. No doubt what he really believes will come out in the course of the electoral campaign, and some quite profound issues around sex and consent may be debated.
That is, if they are allowed. Unfortunately Ireland’s constitution sets some preconditions on running for the Presidency. To be a candidate, one must have the support either of twenty members of the Oireachtas, or four city or county councils. With this shadow over his reputation it seems unlikely now that he will receive them.
And frankly, it looks like these leaks were timed to have exactly that effect.
- This probably isn’t verbatim, I’m quoting from memory.
- So how does a Gay Rights activist get to be a Senator in a generally conservative country? It is a product of the strange way Ireland’s Senate is elected. Without going into great detail here, Senator Norris represents a university – Trinity College Dublin.
- The Wikipedia page linked does not – at time of writing – mention the statutory rape conviction. This appears to be due to partisan editing – pro-Palestinian that is, rather than pro-Norris. See the discussion page.
- Full text of interview available as images: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3.