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'I know my values ... I have done nothing wrong'

'You definitely dealt with the gay issue in a very good way as far as I am concerned, so that should put that to bed forever for all decent people."

This was part of the email message Senator David Norris sent to me less than two weeks ago, a day after our most recent interview appeared in this newspaper. How ironic his words seem now. Particularly at the end of a week in which the "gay issue" leapt right back up out of bed and, at least according to some commentators, finally killed Norris's bid to become Ireland's next President.

So, has it? That is something only we Irish people, decent or otherwise, can decide for ourselves. All I know right now is that I myself definitely must be marginally less idealistic than David Norris, because despite his expressed hope that our last interview would end the dominant tendency to home in on only the subject of his sexuality, I never believed that this was going to happen.

That's why I purposefully and provocatively kicked off that last article with the line: "Let's face it, the Irish people will never put a 'Pansy' in the Park." Yes, it probably was a bad joke, but Norris understood where I was coming from, laughed when I ran the line by him, then added, defiantly, "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 what I was really saying in my own clumsy coded way is that I know damn well that there are those Irish people who will never tolerate even the thought of an Irish President who happens to be gay.

I also had a strong suspicion that some hardcore Catholic group or organisation would start a smear campaign. After all, during our previous interview for the Sunday Independent, in 2002, David had told me that he himself believes the Vatican is "very homophobic, particularly Cardinal Ratzinger" and the latter, of course, has since become Pope. And that is why, this time round, I asked how he would respond if he heard that, for example, a representative of the Vatican had phoned the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland and told them to do all they could to block his bid for the Presidency.

"I respect the diplomatic skills of the Vatican and I think they would be foolish to do that," David responded. "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."

I know. Ironies abound in this story. As they do in relation to another quote Norris gave me, which I didn't use but, arguably, may be more appropriate now. Namely: "I think that, certainly over the past 10 years, we have evolved from being an unthinking Catholic country."

So, why am I raising all this Catholic stuff now? Am I suggesting the smear campaign that started last week was initiated by a phone call from the Vatican? Not at all. But I do now know, though I didn't last Monday when I spoke on Liveline and The Last Word, about this controversy, that there is a website called David Norris 4 President, which, despite its name, is doggedly dedicated to derailing the man's campaign. (The official site for the presidential campaign is norrisforpresident.ie). Its homepage states not only baldly but in bold letters: "David is Homosexual" and under that claims he "has embraced a lifestyle which is blatantly out-of-line with Biblical morality".

But given all that's been happening in the last week week vis-a-vis Norris, the cyber link that really caught my attention was "Interviews on Sex", plus its accompanying claim, "David's comments concerning sex with minors show a worrying trend" which, in turn, leads you to "What David Believes" and this quote: "In an interview with Magill magazine in 2002, interviewer Helen Lucy Burke said that she "found some of his views on sexual matters deeply disturbing, notably on sex with minors".

Follow that link and you will be taken to the Magill article itself.

It is also worth noting at this point that this material was on the 'David Norris 4 President' website prior to the controversy which erupted in the last week surrounding that article in Magill. I most definitely am not suggesting that there is any connection between this website and Helen Lucy Burke.

Nor am I some conspiracy theorist. As in the kind who might suggest that the presence on that website of Burke's article, followed by the fact that she phoned Liveline last Monday, four days after its listeners voted Norris the man most likely to be President, and she used some of its quotes to back her claim that a man with "evil beliefs" should not be President, can't be a coincidence.

Either way, in case you missed the show, what "evil beliefs" was Helen Lucy Burke referring to? For one thing, and most disturbingly for most, it seems, the suggestion that he condones sex with minors. And here I must say, particularly as the son of a man who was raped at 13 by Christian Brothers, in a Remand School, that I'd readily agree with Burke's claim that Norris is morally unsuitable for the role of President, if I believed what she was saying is right.

But I don't and, as far as I know, it's not. My first interview with David Norris was in 2002, an interview which, incidentally, he still regards as the "definitive rebuttal" of such allegations. I found him "wounded" by what he called the "tabloidisation" of his Magill quote in a Sunday newspaper, under headlines such as "Senator backs sex with children", and "Fury at gay's 'paedophilia is okay' message".

"It is the cruellest thing that has ever happened to me," he said, while battling back tears which, even so, fell on at least three occasions during our interview, once even forcing him to leave his office in Leinster House for a few minutes before we could continue.

"And I've lived with it, with a clear conscience, but it has been immensely painful. I can control it consciously, but when I get to sleep I'm wracked by nightmares in which I am unjustly accused of all kinds of terrible things I didn't do.

"And why it wounds me so much is because I have fought so hard for the rights of people who are damaged, underprivileged and abused and this is an attempt to put me in the camp of the abusers. I am against abuse. It horrifies me. And I understand the pain of victims. I've been working in this whole area for more than 30 years."

At that point, Norris had just returned from Thailand where he was the leader of a group "looking at the situation of HIV and at the trafficking of women and children for sexual purposes".

"Then I come home to this," David continued. "It so completely misrepresents everything I said. In that interview I said I cannot understand how anyone would consider it appropriate to have sex with children and that the penetration of juveniles, of either sex, was wrong and harmful. So, how can anyone say I back sex with children? But at the same time I knew what my views were, and I felt, and hoped, people who followed my career over the years would know that I am a decent person."

Of course, I did challenge David on what I knew some would see as his questionable claim that there is something to be said for classic paedophilia.

"It was 'pederasty' I said, the magazine got it wrong," he

responded, a claim clarified last week by Norris saying, on the Pat Kenny Show, that he asked Burke to change the word "paedophilia" to "pederasty" and she didn't.

"But all I'm saying is that when I was 17, 40 years ago, it was illegal to be gay. People were driven into bushes, public lavatories, and that's all there was for them. So, if somebody, a few years older, who is handsome, athletic and so on, came along, the majority of gay people would think that is a better alternative."

Okay, before someone tries to use that quote as part of a smear campaign I must add that I did ask David if furtive encounters in public parks and lavatories were part of his experience as a teenager and he said they weren't.

"Not really. I got so involved in politics that I led, virtually, a celibate life. I also always felt I was entitled to dignity so these furtive encounters never appealed to me.

"Indeed, I lost all my youth, all the experiences of young manhood, going to dances, holding hands, going on a date to the cinema. All my friends had that. I had nothing, except this stifling sense of isolation. I didn't consciously meet another gay man until I was in my mid-20s. But I escaped into a world of music and literature. That's where I lived emotionally."

Here David Norris was alluding to the fact that he was an only child and that both of his parents died when he was relatively young. This would suggest, at least to me, that when Norris said in that contentious quote from Magill, that back when he was younger he would have greatly relished the prospect of an older man taking him under his wing, he should have added "or any man".

A few weeks back, when we were reflecting on that period of Norris's life, he did say something, which again I didn't use for the article, but that now adds another irony to the events of the past week. It also turned out to be prophetic. And will remain so, I hope.

"Looking back on all that now, I have to say that no matter what is dragged up, if there is a smear campaign, it won't cause me the kind of grief I felt then and I'll tell you why," he mused. "Because in that experience I found that the people of Ireland knew, and recognised, my integrity and I also know myself. I know my values. I know I have done nothing wrong.

"Sure, I can get into airy-fairy, intellectual, academic discussions that lead me all over the place, sometimes it's risky, you can be ambushed, and people can take things out of context! But I know inside myself the quality of my own integrity and, in the end, I know I can stand on my record."

Amen.

© Joe Jackson See the original articles at joejacksonjournalist.com

Sunday Independent