Fergus Finlay: His judgment let him down and, in his heart, he knew it

Fergus Finlay

A presidential election is about people. It's not about parties, or policies, or what you did in the constituency. It's about the people of Ireland choosing, ultimately, who we want to represent us. We are choosing a person.

When we're making that choice, we will take all sorts of things into account. The history of the person. How they perform on television or in a hall where we heard them speak. What we believe they stand for.

But most of all, because it's about people, we're looking for qualities.

We don't have to like the person (although that helps) but we have to trust them. We know the president isn't going to be a leader in the executive sense of the term, but we have to be prepared to follow them anyway. So we have to trust their honesty, their capacity, their judgment, and their energy. And we have to come to accept that we'd be proud and happy to be represented by them. Inevitably, what all this means is that the presidential election involves a lot of scrutiny. Presidential candidates don't have to have policy answers, they have to have personal answers. And that's true no matter how outrageous or inappropriate the question is. In a presidential election the person is always the target.


And a presidential election starts, by the way, the moment a candidate declares an interest. Even though the presidency is, technically speaking, an office above politics, it is the most acutely political office in the land, because it is the only one in which every citizen has a constitutional right to have a say. More than one candidate has fallen into this trap in the past. They believe that their previous good works and their wonderful past relationship with the media will enable them to stay above the political fray. But the moment you decide to seek a political office, you enter politics, and the media will instantly approach you with a different glint in their eye.

That's how it should be. You shouldn't be elected president of your country without passing the test of scrutiny. You shouldn't expect to be able to avoid it. You can't complain if you don't pass the test.

That was the dilemma David Norris faced in the last few days. He had invited scrutiny by deciding to run, and he had failed the test imposed by that scrutiny. It wasn't ultimately his decency or his honesty that let him down, it was his judgment. And in his heart of hearts he knew that.

There are a great many people in Ireland today who are saddened that David Norris is no longer in the race for the Aras.


They believe, many of them, that he had a right to have his name put in front of the people, and to be judged by the people alone. I understand that point of view. But David Norris's name was in front of the people from the moment he declared an interest, and the scrutiny was inevitable. David Norris wanted to go on. He had set his heart on winning, and he believed utterly that he could be a great president of Ireland and for Ireland. (And that's the first requirement of a great candidate, by the way -- the belief that you'd make a great winner.) But he knew he couldn't go on, that his campaign was unsustainable and his position untenable.

So he proved one thing. Whatever the doubts about his judgment, he behaved with impeccable, even old-fashioned, honour.

In his darkest hour, he enhanced his reputation by the graceful way in which he accepted the inevitable.

Not a lot of people who have run for political office can make that claim.