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Humble pie and just desserts

It must be fun being Eoghan Harris, a man who takes up political positions like 1970s' cartoon character Mr Benn dons fancy dress (socialist, unionist, capitalist, cosmonaut, Aztec priest, saucy nun). Sadly, also like an episode of Mr Benn, Harris's sporadic radio polemics, though entertaining, are no basis for coherent policy making.

So when Harris waded into the Norris-scandal, it was a sure sign that his presidential campaign was doomed. On Monday's News at One he eloquently defended Norris, who had once sought clemency for a former partner in an Israeli statutory rape case, and began with a well-meaning and genuinely impassioned plea for empathy and against "the mob" (Harris hadn't been quite so understanding when excoriating Adi Roche in 1997's election, Fergus Finlay reminded us the next morning on Newstalk's Breakfast).

But then he veered a bit off-message. Patrick Pearse was thought to be a pederast, he observed, before reciting a few lines from Pearse: "There's a fragrance in your kisses that I've not yet found in the mouths of women. Lad of the grey eyes, that flush in thy cheek would be white with dread of me could you read my secrets."


The whole nation shuffled uncomfortably. Harris then suggested that even Pearse would have been prohibited from being president in the current climate, and listeners wondered whether this was really a bad thing. They say that people campaign in poetry and govern in prose, but having just heard some of Pearse's poetry, I suspect he might have governed in a sex-dungeon.

The Pearse comparison wasn't helpful. Nobody was claiming that Norris was a pederast. He had sent an inappropriate letter. In around the time it would have taken him to write that letter, Joe Jackson had written and published David Norris: Trial By Media, a book based on a previous scandal. On Newstalk's Lunchtime Jackson discussed Norris's love for his ex-partner Ezra Yizhak Nawi and his "stupid romanticism", while simultaneously, no doubt, scribbling the manuscript for Son of David Norris: Trial By Media II on a napkin for publication later that week.

The simple fact, as Jackson suggested, was that this was a very personal tragedy. It was amplified to national scandal by the realities of the presidential system: the presidency is symbolic; you can't campaign on policies, so every mistake is a potential deal-breaker.

On Tuesday's News at One, former candidate Mary Banotti extended sympathies to all candidates and suggested we'd only seen the start of the muck-raking. Then on Liveline, a programme which has documented many of Norris's ups and downs, a phone poll indicated that 55pc of listeners felt Norris should withdraw.

Soon afterwards, he did. When later he appeared on The Last Word he sounded humbled and explained the very personal nature of his actions: "I think in one sense he [Ezra] was the love of my life . . . and you don't stop loving someone whatever their flaws and faults are."


But interviewer Anton Savage didn't shirk from hard facts ("This man that you so loved had sex with a 15-year-old child," he said) and as he pressed these points home, Norris demonstrated why his position was untenable: he didn't get it. Despite his regret, he put his lobbying for Ezra in the same category as his human rights campaigns and similar letters written by other politicians.

Norris is a lovely man, a hugely important figure, and would have made a great president. Sadly, the ambiguity of his position was too much. So he left the race. "I would prefer if I'm going to be derided to be derided with a degree of Swiftian satire," he said, with a final literary flourish, criticising "the heavily loaded headlines, vulgar insinuations and smutty suggestions."

He also, rather touchingly, addressed a lady with cancer for whom he had promised to light a candle, and noted that all the things he promised people, "I'll have to do for them now in a more humble way."

On Thursday's Newstalk Breakfast Ivan Yates griped that Dana had announced her candidacy.

"You were moaning that everyone in the presidential race was boring yesterday," said Chris Donoghue (Bert to his Ernie).

"We're desperate . . . but we're not that desperate," said Ivan, probably accurately.