Thursday 19 September 2019

John Drennan: 'It has been many people's fate to love people who have defects...'

In an exclusive interview, David Norris tells of his fight to stay afloat and determination to succeed as yet another controversy rocks his presidential bid. He spoke to John Drennan

'I'm not hiding behind shadows. I have to take it on the chin and reassure people all over the country that I'm the same person I was last week'

AS an unprecedented storm -- even by Irish presidential election standards -- rages, David Norris yesterday told the Sunday Independent that he was "absolutely committed to remaining in the presidential race".

The upbeat senator said: "I am a pretty odd person," and claimed that, in spite of being in the teeth of a media furore, he hadn't "felt as happy or as free in the last year."

But on Friday, in an exclusive interview at his home, the front-runner in the race to the Park admitted his bid to secure the Aras was "in serious trouble" and that his "chances are slim".

The presidential candidate contacted the Sunday Independent as an increasingly virulent internet campaign about his relationship with Ezra Yizhak Nawi gathered force, to address the issues surrounding the conviction of his former partner for having sex with an underage Palestinian youth in 1992.

Mr Norris had, at that stage, been separated from his former partner for more than seven years.

However, in a revelation that is almost certain to seriously damage his campaign, the senator told the Sunday Independent that when the case broke in 1997 he provided a character reference to the court in the first trial and a second reference to Nawi's lawyers in the subsequent appeal.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, Norris said: "I am not hiding behind shadows, I am prepared to come out," and said of the affair that "it is part of my duty to take it on the chin and reassure people all over the country that I am the same person on Monday morning as I was last week."

Mr Norris has been the firm favourite to win the race for the Park. However, in the wake of revelations about the Nawi case, his press director and campaign manager resigned.

Speaking from the sanctuary of his Georgian home on Friday, prior to the resignations, Norris said: "I believe I can get through it because I know the type of man I am."

However, as political support slipped away, the candidate's chances were diminished by the revelation that Norris provided a character reference for his former partner in the first trial of the Palestinian human rights activist.

Norris claimed that he had been both "shattered" and "confused" when the case broke.

But two documents, voluntarily supplied to the Sunday Independent by Mr Norris, reveal the extent of his intervention in the case.

In the first, relatively brief reference, written on Seanad Eireann headed notepaper, Mr Norris claimed that Nawi was "a man of the highest integrity and one in whom I place complete confidence".

The senator added: "I would have no difficulty whatever in acting as guarantor, sponsor or character reference for him in any circumstance."

The letter was signed: Senator David Norris, Bureau Member, Irish Foreign Affairs Committee.

What may be even more devastating to Norris, however, is his decision to provide a subsequent nine-page character reference and detailed legal submission to Nawi's legal team leading the appeal against the first trial.

This had found that Nawi was guilty of underage sex with a Palestinian teenager.

The second document begins with Norris saying: "I approach the court with a humble plea that my voice be listened to in the case of Ezra Yizhak."

The senator claims in the document that Nawi is "a thoroughly good and decent man".

The senator notes: "I am... a member of the Upper House of the Irish Parliament'', and adds that at the "recent election held last month I received the highest vote ever recorded in the Senate... and have been widely mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections to the Presidency of Ireland''.

The submission then lists out a number of legal precedents in the Irish courts that could serve to mitigate or cancel Nawi's sentence.

Included in this was the mitigating fact of an early guilty plea, the fact that Nawi was seeing a psychotherapist and a promise by Nawi to make financial compensation available to the boy.

Norris also cited the Irish doctrine of "fresh complaint" under which the complaint should be made as soon as legally possible.

This was a common tactic used in Irish clerical abuse cases where defendants claimed they could not receive justice because the offence occurred many years ago. In the Nawi case, however, though the assault took place in 1992, the trial took place five years later.

Norris also told the lawyers that "there is a growing tradition in the Irish courts for non-custodial or suspended sentences in such cases" and that community-service orders had been given to some defendants.

The senator also cited case law where when "the victim not only consents but should be considered the instigator, or at least a willing participant, a sentence towards the lower end of the range" was seen as being appropriate in some cases.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Norris was anxious to make it clear that "this document was given to Ezra's lawyers to use if they felt it was appropriate. I did not send it directly to the judges".

Norris said of the affair: "I was appalled by what I heard about Ezra's behaviour. My position still remains that I abhor any abuse of children, whether it is psychological, physical or sexual.''

But in the wake of two earlier controversies about his views on "the ancient Greek practice" of pederasty; a country that is in a state of barely suppressed rage over the contents of the Cloyne Report is unlikely to take kindly to the revelation that Norris provided two character references to a former lover in a trial involving the abuse of a minor and the subsequent appeal of the initial guilty verdict.

In an eloquent apologia for a set of actions that may be judged with a greater harshness than they deserve, Mr Norris told the Sunday Independent he and Nawi were in a relationship from 1975 to 1985 before they separated over Nawi's refusal to commit himself fully to Norris.

The offence occurred in 1992 and Nawi was convicted in 1997.

Norris said the context behind the reference was that "in 1997, I was in Tibet secretly writing a report on human rights abuses. When I got back home there was all this stuff from Ezra and his lawyers looking for a character reference so I wrote him a character reference".

The senator added: "People might ask why didn't I cut and run when I found out what this was. My Hebrew is very rudimentary.

"Initially I couldn't understand the evidence and for as long as I knew him his relationships were with adult men.''

In a compelling soliloquy, Mr Norris said that when the full truth emerged he was "shattered. But when you see someone drowning and their head surfaces, you don't push it back under. You pull them ashore and you confront them with what they have done".

He said the furore and the secretive internet campaign that sparked it were "guilt by association. I am not Ezra. I have never lived his lifestyle. I loved him. But it has been many people's fate to love people who have defects".

The senator also said his support for Nawi was influenced by a real fear that he would take his own life in the wake of the second trial.

Mr Norris told the Sunday Independent: "Before I knew Ezra, he was forced to go into the army. He was always a pacifist and subject to depression. In order to get out of the army he shot off his leg."

Referring to Nawi's subsequent humanitarian activities, Mr Norris said: "I think the world is better off because he didn't take his life. I felt only because there was a good part of him as well that I was able to do this.

"If I helped to ensure he didn't take his life then I'm certainly not ashamed of going against my personal interests and being loyal to that good part of him."

An unusually subdued Norris told the Sunday Independent he had not expected the Nawi conviction to arise because it had happened so long ago. He admitted: "I anticipated there would be attacks. I trawled back 10 years and we anticipated that would be enough."

In an implicit admission that he had made a major political error, the senator admits "some people will think it [Nawi's conviction] should have cropped up immediately. But I had compartmentalised it away. It was a shocking and painful experience".

The senator's subsequent admission that "nobody knew this was coming. I never alerted people but it was so long ago and so hurtful" goes a long way towards explaining why two of his top campaign team resigned so abruptly.

The revelations about Nawi initially surfaced on a number of internet blogs, many of which appear to have a close link with Israel.

Norris, who has been publicly critical of the treatment of Palestine by Israel, refrained from commenting on suggestions that he had been "stitched up".

But he did say: "There is something sinister about it all. It has all the appearance of a stitch-up but I'm too close to the situation."

He added that "while it has been put to me that there is Israeli involvement, I will not make that allegation because I wish there to be good relations between the people of Israel and Ireland''.

Mr Norris also apologised to his supporters and said: "I am very sorry that so many of my supporters around the country may feel hurt by these further insinuations."

The senator concluded by saying: "I'm happy to abide by the judgement of the Irish people and if they judge me to be unworthy then I'm happy to accept it."

Sunday Independent

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