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.
So according to a story just broken by IrishCentral.com, the “vile and false” accusation against a member of Dana Rosemary Scallon‘s family is that her brother – and campaign advisor – John Brown sexually abused their niece.
Pretty vile all right, and from an odd source. No complaint or charge of sexual abuse appears to have been made. The accusation comes from legal testimony given by the father of the alleged victim, Dana’s brother-in-law Dr. Ronald Stein, during the legal wrangling between the partners formerly involved in Dana’s record label. (Heart Beat Records, a “Christian music company the family had established in the U.S.” as IrishCentral describes it.) However he appears not to have accused Dana’s brother of the crime so much as claimed that he confessed to it.
It has to be emphasised that we have no particular reason to believe the accusation. Possibly the testimony by Stein is a fabrication made during a very nasty battle to control a lucrative family business. This is what Dana herself appears to believe, and as the Irish Times reported, the judge in that case said that “no witness spoke only the truth.”
Will this affect her campaign? In fact I think it could do her more good than harm. Unlike the loosely comparable issue dogging Senator David Norris, her brother has not apparently been convicted or even charged with anything, and the full extent of Dana’s involvement, as far as we know at this point, was to try to keep the allegation off the record and out of the papers. That may have been ultimately a foolish move – if an allegation is baseless you inevitably lend it credence by attempting to suppress it – but she doesn’t appear to have done anything at all improper. Then there is the issue that will inevitably follow on. Was some journalist really using this information to threaten her, as she seems to believe? If it can be shown (or made to look like) one was, then she has a sympathy vote coming.
I doubt if it is true though. It seems more likely that she perceived, or wished to characterise, any questions about these allegations as an attempt to undermine her campaign. But she should not pretend, even to herself, that such an allegation made in court is of no legitimate interest to the electorate. The biggest mystery here is how it did not come to light until this late stage.
Will it effect the outcome of the election? No, not at all. She was quite clearly not electable anyway.
After an astonishing roller coaster ride of a campaign that saw him first bow out and then bow to pressure to return, David Norris will be on the Presidential ballot paper. And what a paper. Nominations are not yet closed, but the line-up is looking to be:
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.
Let’s start the week with a recap of the last one – a momentary break from the nausea helps one better appreciate the carousel, I find.
All hell broke loose in England, with the young indulging in a strange mixture of wanton violence and want-one theft. The more repulsive commentators, in Ireland especially it seemed, were keen to blame it on the feminist-socialist conspiracy to raise children without fathers, completely unconscious it seemed of the fact that this made them sound disturbingly like Anders Breivik. Those who wanted to blame black people had to make do in the end with blaming white people who just talk like black people.
On a related note, surprise hit of the week was an article on the decline of the meme. What I’d thought of as a throwaway remark was later bandied about Twitter as “Chapman’s Law”: If you hear about an internet meme via any medium except the Internet, it is already over.
I also discovered that I can say what I like about gay Presidents and right-wing politicians, but if I really want to get an argument going here, the thing I need to do is criticise Apple.
Back home then, and off our coasts new dives were being made on the wreck of the Lusitania. What seemed like the last nail was knocked into David Norris’s Presidential campaign when it was revealed that, in an unguarded moment in 1975, he admitted that his adolescent fantasies had been homosexual in nature. This was taken up by some in the press to mean that he represented a paedophile threat to himself.
Attention switched to veteran TV personality Gay Byrne, and he was even approached with an offer of support by the once-great Fianna Fáil party, who until now have only lost one Presidential election in the whole history of the State. But fortunately everyone suddenly realised that this was a completely mad idea.
And at home home, my mother received a call from a phone scammer. My rage was not a nice thing to behold, but the lesson I took away was that if I stayed calm when talking to the scammer next time, I’d be able to scare even more shit out of them.
Still closer to home, I was bitten by a mosquito and had a bad allergic reaction. Having tried about everything available in the pharmacy and found it wanting, if not utterly useless, I discovered an instant, effective cure: Water.
I hasten to point out that that doesn’t make it homoeopathy.
It is in the nature of humans to be frightened about the future. If we could look closely at the past though, really remember it properly, we’d find that pretty damn scary too. It is as they say a foreign country; we have no idea what they’re talking about.
There was a real campaign in the 70s to repeal the age of consent.¹ This seems unthinkable now, but in the context of the time it was, if by no means a popular argument, at least a rational one. The idea was that if anyone is mature enough to feel sexual desire, then they should not be prevented by law from doing something about it. Contraception was seen as a solved problem, so if you wanted to have sex with someone and they did too, why not? This follows logically enough from the premise that sex is a fundamentally good thing. It was natural to feel desire and natural to express it, interference from the laws of society therefore could only do more harm than good.
You have to admit, that was a very optimistic view of human nature. Gravely optimistic, I’m tempted to call it. But though it is hard not to judge at this distance, I do think it was more naïve than cynical. People who felt sexual desire for adolescents or even pre-adolescent children saw themselves as oppressed by an outdated Victorian morality, just as homosexuals had been until so recently. Many still do now I’m sure, but in the culture of the 70s, when people were far less conscious of the pervasiveness of sexual violence, it was easier to hold such a view.
Notably absent though from the campaign for children’s rights to have sex were, well, children. That was probably a clue. Children do have sexual feelings of course; confusing and diffuse in childhood proper, but becoming focused on the desired sex at the onset of puberty. Despite what some of the more shouty newspapers would like to pretend, David Norris was not the only adolescent to fantasize about sexual activity with an adult. It would be unusual not to. Longings begin at around the age of twelve, and nothing can be done to fulfil them for several long years. It is one of the most difficult, and vulnerable, times of life.
The crucial point though is that desire to have sex is not the same thing as consent to have sex – not when a person is incapable of free, informed consent. We don’t regard children as well-informed enough to know their own best interests, and even more mature minors are likely to be at a huge disadvantage in terms of how much control they have over the situation. Any sexual relationship where two people have a very different amount of control is likely to be exploitative – by which I simply mean, one person is able to manipulate the other to get sex. While no relationship is ever between perfect equals of course, we tend to frown on ones where there is a blatant power imbalance; where one has authority over the other’s career for example, or is responsible for their education, or where one can afford to pay for sex and the other needs money for drugs. And while we broadly consider it an adult’s right to form whatever the hell stupid exploitative harmful relationship they want, we accept that society has a duty to protect minors, even from their own decisions.
Is there a vast difference between sexual activity with a child who doesn’t even understand what sex is, and with a willing partner who is just a year below the age of consent? Of course there is. But there is little option except to say that any sex below a certain age is illegal. Certainly, those who are mature for their age will consider this a gross interference in their private lives. Certainly it is ludicrous that two underage people could be considered to be technically raping each other, or that what’s a severe crime one day becomes perfectly acceptable the next. But any way you legislate this will create some anomalies, none will be perfect. The simplest, fairest and most enforceable way to try to protect minors from abuse is to have a clear minimum age of consent for all. With no exception – not even for things that were perfectly normal in Ancient Greece.
I think David Norris believes that too. If he once thought otherwise – and I have to stress that there is no actual evidence of that, just inference and innuendo – we must remember that society’s understanding of this has grown a lot more mature since the ideals of the 70s. Adults have had to become less innocent, to better protect children. Whether being sympathetic to such ideas in the past makes you an unsuitable representative now is a matter for the electorate to decide.
It does still exist, but it was only in the late 70s and early 80s that it even approached being a mainstream idea.
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.