Friday 24 November 2017

A plea to the Irish people: 'Please come out and vote'

Voluble Senator David Norris is determined to have the last word

'THE SENATE HAS BEEN MY LIFE': Above, Senator David Norris at home in Dublin
'THE SENATE HAS BEEN MY LIFE': Above, Senator David Norris at home in Dublin
Senator David Norris with Barry Egan. Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

SENATOR David Norris is sitting in his back garden on North Great George's Street discussing the end.

It is not the possible end of the Senate – the results on the abolition of which the nation will know next Saturday – but perhaps a more personal ending: his funeral.

"I am having it in St Patrick's Cathedral where I have worshipped for almost 70 years," Norris, who has battled inoperable liver cancer, tells the Sunday Independent. "I am having the last word. I am doing the speech."

Indeed, he has just recorded the first version of his monologue from beyond the grave. It starts off: 'Hello everybody. I don't suppose you thought you'd hear from me again quite so soon ... '

At the actual ceremony Gloria, Dublin's gay and lesbian choir, will sing Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus followed by Paul Robeson's version of The Ballad of Joe Hill – "a wonderful bright red socialist ballad as my wickerwork basket goes down the aisle".

After two "weepy" Victorian hymns, a jazz band will play Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and, he says with a smile, "off we set down to County Laois where my ancestors came from and I will be buried in a tiny little graveyard with relations going back to the year dot".

On his tombstone Norris will have the bons mots from Shakespeare's The Tempest inscribed: 'We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on; and our little life/ Is rounded with a sleep.'

After they put the colourful senator into the ground for the big sleep, there will be a big party in Roundwood, the first song of which will be Monty Python's Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

In terms of his cancer, there is actually a bright side of sorts...

The afternoon I meet him at his home in Dublin, Norris has just received good news. The team at St Vincent's Hospital have managed to shrink the principal tumour, "which is quite big, and some of the smaller ones have disappeared. It may put me in line for a liver transplant which is the only real resolution of the situation".

And if you don't get the liver transplant? Where does that leave you?

"I think I'll be six feet under!" he laughs. "Within a certain period of time. We are perishable goods!

"But look at it this way: I have had a wonderful, interesting life. And, I think, through the Senate I have contributed in some way to Irish life.

"There is a limit of 70 on liver transplants. Once you are 70 you don't get a transplant," the 69-year-old adds. "I think that is quite right. Young people should get priority. They have ideas, they have families."

Although for the two hours I spent with him he was a tornado of bravado and joie de vivre, Norris admits that "the one thing with the cancer is that it tends to bring down your levels of energy".

He remembers doing the last interview with the late Tony Gregory on Newstalk, with Gregory coming straight from chemotherapy into the studio.

"He could hardly stand and I didn't think he would be able for it," Norris recalls, "but the minute we started talking about politics, human rights, the inner city, he came alive and was unstoppable. And I find the same," Norris says.

The negative effects of the chemo on Norris are, he says, that he feels a little bit bilious "but I don't have any pain. I had appalling pain at the beginning.

"But I find, just like Tony, the Campaign to Save the Senate has brought me back to life. I am like Dr Manette," he says referring to the character in the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities. "Recalled to life! I remember the day I got out of hospital I got a taxi straight into Leinster House and I made one of the speeches of my life, half-standing, half-sitting, because I was weak. But I was passionate because I believe so much in the Senate and what it has done and what it has achieved."

Unsurprisingly, he agrees with Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin's accusation – levelled at An Taoiseach last week – of a Fine Gael "con job" over claims that abolishing the Senate will save €20m.

"It is a con job!" he roars, his energy back in full. "First of all that has been denied by the people who are responsible for the figures. They say it is between €4m and €8.5m. But if you take Enda Kenny's figures – which are admittedly wrong – you have two-and-a-half years in the Senate, that is €50m, you've got €15m to be wasted on the referendum, you have another €5m to be wasted on legal stuff.

"And their posters! That's what makes me laugh!" he says, roaring with laughter.

"They say they're not using taxpayers' money but yet Fine Gael gets €5m from the taxpayers every year for their party. That's their party money. This is taxpayers' money no matter what you say. So the taxpayer is paying to have lies fed to them about the Senate. And Enda says less politicians."

He adds, with perfect comic timing, "Well, what is Enda? A vet?

"And because the Senate is going to continue in suspended animation for two-and-a-half years so that is €50m there. Then there is the severance pay, the pensions, the relocation of people, paying the people who are dislodged from the civil service and all the rest of it. I could easily work it up to €150m! So the abolition of the Senate, not alone will it not save money, it will actually cost money.

"How would you like it if you were fired from your job? Without your trade union to represent you? No discussion!" he continues.

"And your employer blaming you for the mistakes that he made! That's what Enda is doing. Enda and Bertie f***** this country up. And gave money to the gamblers... to the banks – nobody except Angela Merkel has a smirk on her face! Don't say f***** it up ... say buggered it up," he laughs.

"Look, the Government is grasping and reaching its tentacles for every little bit of power. I would ask, with all the best will in the world, do we trust them?

"I don't trust them for a number of reasons. When we debated the abolition of the Senate bill, there were 180 amendments put in – 179 were ruled out of order. I have been in the Senate the guts of 30 years. I have never seen anything like it. I don't believe it. I believe it is intensely political – and terribly wrong."

He says he doesn't regret running for the presidency. "I think it was very important to do that, and a wonderful experience ... "

But it was also a shattering experience for you, I say.

"It was a shattering experience and I will be quite honest with you I had hepatitis very badly when I was working for the government doing some work in Eastern Europe – for nothing, may I say – 20 years ago and that leaves you vulnerable apparently to cancer subsequently."

After this campaign to save his beloved Senate – "whatever way it goes" – Norris says he is going to write volume two of his autobiography Kicking Against The Pricks.

"But it will be very specific and it will be about the way in which the media controlled that election. Bald-headed lies."

What lies were told about you?

"I can't go into that just at the moment but that will come out in the book. They were intensely personal, intensely hurtful."

And intensely homophobic?

"Some of them certainly were," Ireland's most famous gay man says. "There is no question or doubt about that. I have absolute proof of that."

Pending liver transplants or not, the senator is in great form.

"I want to take a little smack at Sinn Fein," he laughs. "Padraic Pearse's sister, Margaret Pearse, was a member of the Senate and was honoured to be – and if it was good enough for Padraic Pearse's sister it should be bloody good enough for Pearse Doherty!" he says, referring to the TD who is leading Sinn Fein's Seanad abolition campaign.

He doesn't want to discuss his intemperate remarks earlier this summer about Fine Gael's Regina Doherty talking out her "fanny" about the abolition of the Senate.

Asked how he will feel next weekend if the vote is for the abolition of the Senate, where he has served since 1987, Norris doesn't laugh – for perhaps the first time this afternoon.

"First of all I would grieve, because the Senate has been my life. I never wanted to be in any other chamber. I saw it for what it was: somewhere where you persuade people to do things.

"I think the Taoiseach is making a mistake. Maybe that's why he's hiding – that he won't discuss it with anyone other than people like Colm McCarthy who of course agrees with him. He refused to debate it with me. He refused to debate it with Gerry Adams. He refused to debate it with Micheal Martin. The reason is it is different. The Senate attempts to persuade; we don't try to defeat the government. Your colleague Shane Ross got a bill withdrawn about polling. I have had four bills withdrawn.

"I would be absolutely devastated to be quite honest with you," he adds, "to think that all the work that we have done has been trashed. And to think that we have placed ourselves in the terribly dangerous situation where the present Government has won absolutely everything.

"It was a really horrible experience as an individual to read the bill," he adds.

"I cannot understand how anybody could vote for their own extinction like that. I simply couldn't. because it was my life and I did 12 to 14 hours a day in there regularly. We got six amendments into the Nama legislation which gave accountability to the Oireachtas for the first time – that was some hell of an achievement and that wasn't done in the Dail. I put myself the names of the bondholders on the record. The people in the Dail didn't have the balls to do it. I did it and the Cathaoirleach nearly broke his gavel trying to bang me into silence. But I wouldn't stop and that meant the newspapers were able to print the names. We should be at least entitled to know the names of the people to whom our money is being given in order to save the German and French banks, I thought that was a shocking thing."

As he gets up to show me to the door of his Georgian home – it will, he says, be sold after he goes into the big senate in the sky – Senator Norris has this to say to the people of Ireland.

"Please come out and vote. It is not to save my job. I may not be around. But save an element of our parliamentary life – because what is being said is so wrong."

Sunday Independent

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