I’m watching the replay of the inauguration of Michael D. Higgins as President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann), a significant threshold occasion in our history. An event in my personal life too – this is after all my old Sociology professor. And, one I missed. Yesterday I had to do something to sort out the utter mess my finances had gotten into since the economy hit the windscreen.
It is moving now though, to see one of the few politicians I’ve ever had any respect for become First Citizen. What the hell happened there? After over a decade of naked materialism we’re suddenly electing a socialist intellectual, and with no intervening transition except the global failure of capitalism.
It is a bittersweet occasion though. We now have as President a man who you can say without embarrassment is passionate about equality, about justice, about actually changing society. That we esteem him enough to raise him to this position is a wonderful thing. But at the same time, it’s sad that he was raised to a position of esteem only. As President he has less power than an ordinary citizen; they at least are free to express their own opinions.
Which is unfortunate. Now more than ever we need voices like his.
Kind of a weak headline I know, but I have a rule about not using the C-word before November. Winter during an economic recession is depressing enough.
But wow, what an electoral rollercoaster ride. You have to ask if the polls were ever right about Gallagher’s huge lead. What I’d be most curious about is how the people who said they were going to vote to pollsters compare to the numbers who actually bothered. The Michael D. vote probably represented more loyalty.
Well this comes as a relief. I think we would have regretted a Gallagher presidency.
Great feeling of power here. Because the polls open soon there’s a reporting moratorium. Broadcast media have to shut up about the Presidential election. Print media don’t though. So today, blogging is officially print… If you want to be sure not to break any laws, print this off and only read that.
Two things sadden me about the election. The first is that the man who is within an ace of becoming our next President was until recently a member of Fianna Fáil. To my mind he still is in all but name. The McGuinness ambush may have been rather tabloidesque, but at least it alerted a much larger section of the public to this. It doesn’t matter a damn whether he collected a cheque personally, if it was before or after the event or if the donor had a criminal conviction. What matters is that Seán Gallagher was fundraising for Fianna Fáil right into the Cowen era. Surely that is enough to disqualify him as a prospective President.
The other thing is that the case for Michael D. Higgins never seems to have been made somehow. It looked for a good while that he was simply going to drift into the Presidency mainly on the strength of there being nothing particularly wrong with him. Which would have been a shame really, because he is probably the candidate with the most positives. He’s a nice man with a genuine, active interest in justice and human rights, very much in the mould of Mary Robinson. I believe there are more good reasons to vote for Michael D. than anyone.
OK yeah, I kind of wanted David Norris to win. But that wasn’t for good reasons. More for the entertainment potential. It’s gone beyond fun and games now though. No one but the mild-mannered academic socialist can prevent the next President of Ireland being a product of our worst ever government.
The national sport of Ireland is, as you know, Getting Away With It. Politicians like Haughey and Ahern were not popular in spite of their unexplained wealth. People want to beat the system, so they vote for politicians who beat the system.
What they get from that of course is a system beating itself.
So it’s not that people are tricked into thinking that Seán Gallagher has nothing to do with Fianna Fáil. They know it’s a pretence, and they are willing to play along with that pretence. They may tell each other that Gallagher represents a new, reformed party, or even a future alternative to it. But does he? Hardly. He’s close to the Construction Industry Federation, of all things. Lobbying group for probably the biggest bull in our whole economic china shop. All that’s new is the improved presentation, and Gallagher is all presentation. He’s not a successful businessman, but he plays one on TV.
Yet for many, he provides the perfect compromise: They can pretend they’re still voting to punish those responsible for our economic free-for-all, while actually promoting the party they believe most likely to bend the rules in their favour. It the same old politics of the man on the inside, the same old story of the state that subverted itself.
His interview on Ireland’s Late Late Show was a robust one. Excessively so some thought, but really it could hardly have suited him better. Certainly he was asked tough questions; about the way he acted when his ex was convicted of statutory rape, about quotes attributed to him concerning underage sex. But these were exactly the questions he needed to face publicly if he was to have any hope of competing again.
He even volunteered answers to questions presenter Ryan Tubridy fought shy of asking. In order to contextualise his remark about wanting to be “molested” when he was a child, he brought up the fact that it is quite normal for younger people to fantasize about older. His new, hard-won political experience showed through here though. He didn’t actually say younger people, or adolescents, or teenagers. He said people “of 17 or 18”. People of legal age.
We all know that it is in fact perfectly normal for people years younger than the age of consent to fantasize about adults. We also know that it would have been political suicide for a middle-aged Gay politician to say what we all know to be true. It’s the sort of hypocrisy politics demands. And it will be good for his campaign, because it demonstrates he now has a level of political awareness that he demonstrably did not have when he wrote to the Israeli Appeals Court. This judicious use of half-truth shows he can play the game.
Which seems a little sad, but it is not completely unreasonable. We want a President who is circumspect, diplomatic, who can tell when he’s on the verge of saying something that will scandalize and hold back, who isn’t going to spring any surprises when he’s representing the country abroad.
Well OK, most people want that. Personally I want a President who comes out with stunningly undiplomatic but heartfelt opinions and makes gleefully off-colour sexual remarks – preferably about other people’s Presidents. But we shouldn’t always get what we want.
Well that was a bullet dodged. Gay Byrne for President. Wow.
Some background here for the overseas reader – in Ireland we elect a President to do nothing. Unlike the American President who is head of both, the Irish President is head of State but not of the Executive. In other words they don’t make decisions at all, they are quite literally there just to look pretty. Well, look stately I suppose. They are meant to be a figurehead for the country, standing above the tooth-and-claw world of politics. Like royalty, but without having to pay for their whole extended family. The Constitution requires them to agree with government policies and never say anything controversial.
Someone thought that this was a job for Gay Byrne?
Gay Byrne was for decades the biggest figure in the Irish media. He hosted both the most popular daily radio show and – by far – the most popular weekly TV chat show. All live. Since his retirement it’s taken at least three other presenters to cover for him. He is is a well-loved, avuncular figure with a twinkly eye who embodies some of the best aspects of Ireland. Some. He can also be irascible and strongly opinionated. I invite British readers to imagine a Terry Wogan with… moods.
As soon as people have calmed down a bit they’ll realise the idea was as mad as a yoghurt with spanners in it. What were the chances of Gay Byrne getting through a seven-year Presidential term without telling the government where to get off?
Zero. There was no chance of that happening. Thank God he turned the nomination down. He would have made Hugo Chavez look diffident.
Could Norris have won? No, not now. He was the fun candidate. I am not saying he wasn’t a perfectly serious candidate as well, but he more than anyone else stood for liberation from tiresome, hopeless, party-controlled politics, and if he was going to be elected it would have been on a wave of joyful voting against the establishment. The sheer fact that his ex-partner had committed rape was inevitably going to take the wind out of that.
I wish he had been allowed to continue though. I’d like to have voted for him, if only to say that what he did wrong was forgiveable.
If indeed he did something wrong. From reading the actual letters (PDF) he sent to Israel, I don’t think he represented himself as speaking on behalf of the Irish people or government, or even his constituents. The only part that seems to have been on official Senate paper was the brief and rather bland character reference. The long, detailed plea for leniency appears to have originally been a separate document sent in a personal capacity.
The question of whether he should have pleaded for leniency at all in such a case remains, and I think that was a mistake for a person in his position. But I wouldn’t want to vote for someone who never did a stupid thing for love.
So now, bizarrely, it’s Gay Mitchell’s turn. He’s the candidate of Fine Gael, the party leading the newly-elected government, and so very arguably the favourite since Norris’s departure. Mitchell too made an appeal to a foreign judiciary, in 2003 when he was FG’s spokesman on foreign affairs. His though was for a man due to be executed for the murder of a doctor and his bodyguard, outside an abortion clinic in Florida.
Mitchell says that it was in the context of a consistent campaign against the death penalty. All I will say is, it had better be.
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.