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Bruce Arnold: We need more regulation to define role of President

David Norris's candidacy for the Presidency is in serious jeopardy on account of his outspoken views on sexuality, both in the interview with Helen Lucy Burke, in 'Magill' magazine, and in the more recent interview with Jason O'Toole, published last Thursday.

How the 'Magill' interview came to be written and published, after strenuous attempts to dissuade Norris from some of its more extreme statements, has been scrupulously explained by John Waters, who was consulting editor at the time that Burke interviewed Norris.

Waters also, and quite properly, castigated the media for its dreadful performance over Norris.

Norris's views covered sexual relations between men and boys and included the statement that there was a lot of nonsense talked about paedophilia.

There is, indeed, a lot of nonsense talked about paedophilia as there is about everything else. However, modern thinking subscribes to the idea that it is an obsessive and incurable sexual desire among male adults for pre-pubescent children.

Among others who were paedophiles was Brendan Smyth, protected by the church for much of his adult life while he serially abused and damaged very young children in what was probably the worst case of such behaviour in the State's history and certainly the most widely publicised.

The word pederast, or paederast, has a wider sexual remit but its meaning is put most briefly in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as "sodomy with a boy"; this covers male same-sex physical relationships with boys who have reached puberty as well as pre-pubescent children. Putting his argument in the frame of reference that Norris uses, which goes safely back to the Greeks, Plato's Symposium and decorated Greek vases depicting such sexual activity, is largely if not completely irrelevant.

His interview published in the 'Daily Mail', although it covered the same opinions on sex between males, was quite different in that it was carried out in May 2010 as part of Norris's presidential candidacy. Its content -- much of it not used then -- showed very poor judgment.

In the climate that has pervaded the country over the past decade in respect of paedophile and paederast activity in the past, widely in our industrial school system, much of it performed by priests and brothers on imprisoned and frightened children, such views, represented as acceptable 400 years before Christ, in an ideal Greek situation, bordered on the absurd.

They were based on seriously bad judgment in a man who has been brave and outspoken on homosexuality generally, and on drugs, abortion and prostitution.

That Norris should consider the presentation of such views as suiting him to the Presidency is a product of ourselves, our politicians and the remarkable changes that have been brought about in the definition of the role of Irish President by two remarkable women -- Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese. They have profoundly altered the earlier view of the President, which was essentially of a silent head of State in the Aras. Earlier incumbents had the role of possibly referring legislation to the Supreme Court, and Cearbhaill O Dalaigh did this, to telling effect, over security, before he resigned in the mid-1970s.

Paddy Hillery briefly played a more eccentric role, declining Charles Haughey's attempt to pre-empt the dissolution of the Dail in February 1982, when Garret FitzGerald was defeated over the budget.

Robinson, working strictly within the Constitution and the control it gives to the Government over what the President says, managed to widen her contribution significantly, addressing the joint Houses of the Oireachtas, and speaking out on other occasions.

McAleese went much further and her Presidency has been crowned with the singular achievement of the British royal visit, which hugely helped reconciliation between the two countries. Her presidential career is not without blemish. Her 'touchy-feely' approach to physical encounters is not appropriate to the Office and inevitably creates a clear distinction between friends, when they meet her, and the many official guests she has to greet and hopefully does not hug.

Inappropriate, too, were her remarks about the Unionists and the Nazis, and her upbeat views on how the Ryan Report on the industrial school system would somehow help those who suffered. Neither the report nor the politicians behind the whole investigation did any good at all for the victims.

These episodes raise serious questions about the practical exercise of the controls over the presidential incumbent, who cannot travel abroad, summon the Houses of the Oireachtas, address them or the nation, without prior government approval.

Modern forms of communication have rendered these constraints obsolete, at least in part, and there is no way in which the content of an interview can be 'authorised' in advance. No less than 11 articles in the Constitution, covering more pages than any other single issue save that of the national Parliament, regulate the Presidency.

Despite the changes and developments that have created a new interest in, and respect for, the Office, no attempt whatever has been made to change its operation in law. Protocol in this country is something often made up on the spur of the moment and the collective result of this has been shown as volatile and worrying in the light of David Norris's expression of beliefs that, in my view, render him unsuitable for the Office.

I need hardly add that I am worried also about other candidacies, including Pat Cox, who is politically more shrewd than Norris, yet sees no problem about joining yet another political party in his search for advancement. Cox, who came from a Fianna Fail background, started out as a Fianna Fail candidate in Limerick city local elections in the 1970s. He moved on to become a member of the Progressive Democrats, standing for the Dail in Cork and winning a seat. He gave a solemn and public undertaking to stay with his constituency as a Dail deputy. He broke this when he ran for Europe.

Now he is seeking membership of Fine Gael, with the express purpose of qualifying himself for Fine Gael support in the presidential election, a piece of political cynicism that beats the band.

His espousal of europhile views has become a threat to the State and would be much more so in the event of his election as President. He has had a largely hidden and lucrative second career to politics, that of lobbyist in Brussels where some attempt was made to introduce a register of lobbyists in which he would have featured. It failed. It is fundamental to the process of selecting a President that we should know everything about those wanting to take up an Office in which the essential character and personality of this nation is reflected.

I hope Fine Gael will consider his application as the piece of opportunism it clearly is. Give me Gay Mitchell any day. Whatever happens -- and it is early days yet -- the new terms of presidential style and behaviour are creating a minefield.

Irish Independent