Sunday 28 December 2014

'All my life, I have fought against being labelled and against stigma'

In his bid to become our next President, David Norris has taken on the last taboo of suicide, writes Joe Jackson

Published 22/05/2011 | 05:00

LET'S face it; the Irish people will never put a 'Pansy' in the Park, meaning make David Norris our next President, right? Look at it this way. If he was President right now, the tabloids last week probably would have been awash with headlines like 'Queen greets Queen!' Besides, didn't Norris describe the men who fought for our freedom in 1916 as "terrorists"; doesn't he want us back in the Commonwealth? Hell, we may as well make Queen Elizabeth II herself Ireland's next President.

I'm joking, of course. But the fact remains that David Norris has often been reduced to, potentially, the politically neutralising label of 'Pansy' and his bid to become President has already been undermined by those terror-ist/Commonwealth claims. That's why, within minutes of our meeting in his office in Leinster House on the morning after the first day of the Queen's visit to Ireland, we cut to the chase.

"I don't mind people making jokes like those!" he says, picking up on my 'Queen greets Queen' and, more specifically, my Irish-people-will-never-put-a-Pansy-in the-Park lines. "In fact, one of my colleagues in Trinity said the same thing in terms of the Senate yet they did put me in and I delivered! But all my life I have fought against being labelled and I have already stated that I am putting myself forward not as a gay President but as a President who happens to be gay.

"Yet, I never said the men of 1916 were terrorists. That's not true, it's a slur, and it's not fair on me. Terrorists are people who use civilian casualties to advance a political end. The men of 1916 produced the proclamation, addressed equally -- in an age when women didn't have the vote -- to 'Irishmen and Irishwomen', that's wonderful! And as for me wanting us to rejoin the Commonwealth, this, too, was totally untrue. Never! Never. Never."

Then he adds his own particular tilt on that hugely symbolic moment last week, when the Queen bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance.

"Let's not forget that her uncle, Mountbatten, whom she loved, was blown to pieces [by the IRA] so, at a personal level, that gesture can't have been easy for her. Equally, Mary McAleese was blown out of her home in the Ardoyne, so putting out that invitation to the Queen can't have been easy. But all this is part of the New Ireland, and the Ireland I very much want to represent as President."

The corollary of all this, of course, must be that David Norris does not see himself as part of the Old Ireland. In which, say, as Eamon Keane reminded us in this newspaper last Sunday, Cardinal Desmond Connell once wrote a thesis on how 'God acts through angels' then later condemned 'the evils of homosexuality', prompting Norris to quip, "Dr Connell may know everything about angels, but he knows sweet f**k all about fairies". A classic riposte; so, if David becomes President, can we expect more of the same during a state visit to Rome?

"No!" he responds, laughing. "But at the time I was campaigning and didn't want to get into a direct confrontation with the Vatican, which would alienate a lot of people, so I decided that a touch of humour would be a good way to show up the fact that people were talking about something they clearly hadn't fully explored."

More seriously, the last time David and I did an interview, nine years ago, he admitted that he couldn't see the Catholic Church accepting gay marriages "at the moment" because "the Vatican is very homophobic, particularly Cardinal Ratzinger". The latter has since become Pope, so does Norris, in his new role as would-be President, now think it would be inappropriate to repeat those claims?

"Yes," he says categorically. "And as President it would be quite wrong for me, as a Head of State, to criticise another Head of State. As a President, you are meant to be a unifying force, not divisive force. If I said anything like that, it would start dividing people and start rows all over the country. That was fine, when I was a backbencher. I took no prisoners, Joe, but now I'm moving on!"

Decoded, does this mean that David has been castrated, politically?

"No, I have not. But I have opened up a conversation with the Irish people and with the people of the world, in the name of Ireland, and you do not do that by abusing people [verbally]. But this does not mean I will give up my lifetime battle for human rights or be silenced."

Okay, let's say Norris heard that a representative of the 'homophobic' Vatican made a call to the Catholic hierarchy telling them to do all in their power to stop, well, a 'Pansy' getting into the Park, how would he respond?

"I respect the diplomatic skills of the Vatican and I think they would be foolish to do that and I don't think they are so unsophisticated to do so. And I don't think [Irish] bishops will do that either. They are a varied group. For example, Willie Walsh I admire greatly and he would never put up with that kind of thing. Besides, Ireland has changed extraordinarily in my lifetime and people have had 40 years to get used to the fact that I am gay and now, I believe, they see it as irrelevant."

And if we have, this is partly because it has been more than 40 years since Norris, and Mary Robinson, when they were both students in TCD, set up the Committee for Homosexual Law Reform, which has since rendered many of our archaic laws null and void. But when Norris says that he has also always fought a broader battle for human rights and won't be silenced in this sense, does this mean that if, as President, he visits countries such as China, Syria and Iran, where there are patently abominable violations of human rights, he would feel morally bound to speak out?

"There are ways that could be done," he says. "For example, the regime in Iran implements Sharia law in a way that Irish people find deeply upsetting. These are people who stone women to death. That is a barbarous practice.

"A couple of years ago, a couple in Cork sent me terrible photographs of two young men being hanged in the back of a lorry because they had a friendship that expressed itself sexually. That subject then came up at a private meeting I had with the Iranian Ambassador and, let me tell you, he left that meeting with a very different view. So that is the way I could operate, as President. And the Iranian ambassador, plus other ambassadors will have to pay respect to me as somebody they know has campaigned on these issues.

"I did start out on that campaign [for homosexual law reform] but I found very quickly that the mechanism of discrimination was exactly the same against women, against ethnic minorities, against the handicapped, so I broadened out and this now is how I see things, very much so."

On an issue nearer home, Norris, applauds the fact that Master of the High Court, Edmund Honohan, criticised banks for putting on people who owe them money the kind of merciless pressure that can lead to suicide.

"Suicide is a critical subject in this country," says Norris. "We lied about it for so long, we massaged the statistics, because it was seen as a sin and a crime and that's why people call it 'committing suicide'. But that's hurtful; we should say that people 'take their own lives'. The day I was helping to launch the Snowdrop appeal for Console, I said, publicly, that I was delighted Edmund Honohan had spoken out. For him to say that was extremely important.

"For a President to say something similar also would be extremely important.

"And I would. One of the first pillars in my presidential bid was mental health. I put that down as a matter of principle, I didn't think there would be huge political traction in it, but I've been all around this country and everywhere I go, people say, 'thank God somebody has taken on that last taboo'. We have to lift the stigma attached to suicide and I believe I can help do that."

Returning to the pressures banks put on people, Norris reminds us that "the objective of suicide is not to end a life; it is to end unendurable pain" and he reflects on the bailout.

"When the Minister for Finance said that institutions such as Anglo Irish Banks, could not be allowed to fail because they were of systemic importance, I decoded this to mean that the system had to be preserved at the expense of the people. Not so. On the contrary, as far as I am concerned, the people should be the primary concern of the Government and certainly will be, for me, as President."

Asked if he ever felt suicidal, Norris replies, emphatically, "Never." Even so, the last time we talked, Norris, who was born in the Belgian Congo in 1944, did admit that while, on hearing his dad had died, he "had to squeeze out tears" because they were never that close, the death of his mother, was "totally heartbreaking".

"It destroyed my sense of reality," he adds, now. "This was somebody I loved who was there one minute, then the next minute she was gone."

Here Norris pauses, before saying that while he doesn't like wearing his faith on his sleeve, he hopes this story might help someone going through a similar experience.

"Much later in life when Ezra and I broke up, it was the most crucifying thing," he continues, referring to his companion of 26 years, who left him for a younger man, not long before David and I did that last interview. "I felt the most excruciating pain; it was, literally, physical, and a suffocating loneliness. But then I had a feeling that there had been someone in my room. It wasn't a vision, I didn't see Jesus Christ, but I did feel his presence. However, the question of was he, or wasn't he, God, didn't matter to me. What mattered was realising that 2,000 years ago someone suffered a much more extreme sense of pain and did so in the name of mankind. This thought, alone, helped me, greatly, at the time."

That said, Norris stresses he is not a "Born Again Christian" but says he does define himself as "a Christian" and clearly this fact directly influences his politics.

"I am the kind of Christian who believes that the most important theological principle is the principle of positive doubt. Even Christ doubted, on the cross. And I think if people say they hear the voice of God all the time and say they know what to do, then impose that on you, politically, it is theological tyranny. Whereas if you have doubt, it stops you from abusing your religious belief. Religion can be so abused in the interests of power, especially on behalf of institutions and governments."

All of which leaves only one question I must ask Norris, especially after he admits he hasn't had a serious relationship since the last time we talked. Why did he feel it necessary to promise the people of Ireland that he won't be bringing a partner with him up to the Park?

"I thought it would clear up a confusion," he says. "The point is that I am not living with anybody, I am nearly 67 years old and I am not anticipating a civil partnership and I thought people should know I won't be smuggling somebody in!"

But if David believes that the fact he is gay is "irrelevant" to the Irish people, why would it matter? Certainly, Mary McAleese, Adi Roche, and Dana during the last Presidential race didn't have to promise they wouldn't be having sex with their spouses in Aras an Uachtarain! So, it doesn't seem right that this question should even arise.

"No, it's not right," Norris responds, smiling. "And if love strikes again, that will be wonderful. I definitely am not closing the door on love, in any sense.

"But, first, Joe, I have to win the nomination and become President! And I am just hoping people will give me that chance!"

© Joe Jackson

Sunday Independent

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