Saturday 16 December 2017

Norris: a witty, brave man who was too prickly for the Park

Even by the terms of the recent political upheaval in Ireland, there was something truly extraordinary about last year's presidential election. From Dana's vandalised car to Martin McGuinness's IRA past to the final drama of Seán Gallagher being undone by a tweet.

There, at the centre of it all, was David Norris and the allegations he had to fight on the basis of a 10-year-old magazine interview (and some separate legal letters) in which he speculated freely -- too freely for some -- on a gay man's sexual interests.

It was an extraordinary drama that at times became pure soap opera, but perhaps this was its very appeal. At a time of economic crisis, it was a handy distraction, an enthralling personality contest which had no real consequence for the lives of ordinary people, if we accept that the presidency is not a powerful political position but essentially a figurehead role.

The presidency may be symbolically important, but it is certainly not a position that was going to change the mess we are in. So, for this reason, the real purpose of the election was theatre and, in the end, it became a blood sport, a gladiatorial contest fought out on national radio and television.

Forced to withdraw from the arena early, Norris knows this the most and the title of his memoir reflects his understandable bitterness at the ambushing he suffered.

But the pity about this extraordinary drama -- and electoral crash -- is that it obscures an even more extraordinary story which is the life, career and achievements of Norris himself, long before he got embroiled in the presidency.

An outspoken and eloquent senator, a sparkling English lecturer, and a genuinely popular public figure who has been both fearless and erudite -- Norris has added immeasurably to our public life.

But it is not just his Wildean wit. He has also tackled serious and substantive issues. A Protestant, he challenged the institutional sectarianism of our State up to the early '90s as well as the myths of knee-jerk republicanism and tribal politics.

He also, famously, campaigned bravely against the country's discrimination of gay people, and took the State to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and forced it to legalise homosexuality. For this alone, he should be revered.

At a time when gay culture is so mainstream, and its goals moved on, it is hard to imagine the sort of prejudice and lazy ignorance that he and others were up against.

Norris's memoir is excellent on all of this and on other passages of his life. He gives us a complete picture, in a fluent and highly readable account.

From his birth in the Belgian Congo, to his descriptions of Dublin in the dark '50s and the fledgling gay scene of the '70s, it is a valuable social and cultural history, all carried off with a particularly mordant Irish humour.

This is his winning formula. It shows that in Ireland, or elsewhere, if you are entertaining as well as fearless, and full of conviction, you can overcome opposition and win support.

It is not despite his three-piece suits, cut-glass accent and unashamedly gay persona that Norris is popular: it is because of them. It was an awareness of this popularity that encouraged him to run for the Áras.

But, perhaps, it was a step too far. His understandable impatience with the media and public hypocrisies, shows that he is probably just too clever and individualistic -- and yes, just too prickly -- to become a mere figurehead, cutting ribbons.

And there were issues. As it happens, when I was editor of Magill, somebody grubbily sent me a copy of the infamous Helen Lucy Burke interview, encouraging me to republish it.

It was unsigned but I had strong suspicions about its provenance. I threw it away, but I did feel reading it that it was quite an unguarded interview and could be used against Norris if he ever went for a bigger political office.

And so it came to be. After the initial damage, he returned to the electoral fray but the momentum was lost and the fight gone out of him. In any case, the whole contest was beginning to resemble a daily farce.

There are no silver bullet revelations here. Norris was tricked into publicly releasing his letter in support of his ex-partner Ezra in the latter's Israeli court case by the false claim that others had the letters, but then we probably knew that.

Just as we knew that these "revelations" weren't a Zionist conspiracy.

What the book does have is anger, a lot of it.

While it may often sound righteous, much of it is valid and raises important questions, such as the power of the media -- especially the tabloid media -- and the dumbing-down of our discourse to smart alec soundbites, image, spin and catching people out, not to mention political smears and muck-raking.

Norris speaks generally here and it is hard not to agree with his line about how certain broadcasters "who never had the critical responsibility for taking a decision frequently interrupt, heckle and even abuse Cabinet ministers".

It is bloodsport everywhere, now.

In the end, Norris feels compensated that at least it was Michael D Higgins -- another brave campaigner whom he counts as a friend -- who was elected in succession to Mary McAleese.

He describes attending the inauguration, seated between Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and Cardinal Seán Brady and worried he'd confuse his conversations -- between "Armalites and Carmelites".

The good senator is redeemed by his bravery and wit and I've no doubt he would even have a quip or two if he was being led up to the scaffold.

He is better off without the seven-year gagging order of the Áras.

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