David Norris made late-night television history Friday, appearing on the RTÉ network’s Late Late Show to address the personal allegations that have derailed his Irish presidential campaign. The Irish presidency is a largely ceremonial position, a national spokesman job really, with no legislative or executive power but a good deal of cultural clout. And for months David Norris — the openly gay, avowedly intellectual writer, Trinity College Dublin literature professor and ceremonial Irish senator — has been challenging and reshaping the Irish cultural zeitgeist like no public figure of his time. But is that a good thing?
The allegations against him are immense. In July, a rogue pro-Israel blogger in Dublin named John Connolly published a 1997 letter — based on a tip from “someone in the trade union movement” — that Norris had written, on Irish Senate letterhead, to an Israeli court seeking clemency for his then-partner Ezra Nawi. Nawi’s crime: the statutory rape of a 15-year old Palestinian boy. Norris’ justification for his partner’s actions: an ideological defense of classical pederasty traditions, based on the example set by the ancient Greeks. “I had a training as an academic,” Norris told Late Late Show presenter Ryan Tubridy when faced with a 2002 radio quote he had given defending classic pedophilia. “I would draw academic distinctions.”
Norris means that from a historical and literary perspective, the ancient custom by which an older man assumes responsibility for a much younger man’s sexual and intellectual education holds merit. “I was a criminal,” Norris explained of being gay in Ireland for much of his youth. Only at seventeen, when he found an older partner who took him out of the outlaw “darkness and confusion,” did he begin to come into his own as a man.
Norris’ brutally candid, media-centric independent presidential campaign — announced in March and a quick public sensation — is the stuff of movies. The fact that there are no real stakes in the race only heightens them. Norris, who, as senator, became the first gay man elected to public office in Catholic Ireland, is engaging the voters in a head-on debate on what is and what is not acceptable in public life — and he’s not denying or hiding from anything (“I’m an open book,” he tells Tubridy).
Norris has been lecturing at Trinity College Dublin since 1968, championing the defense of James Joyce against postmodern critics. (When The Commitments author Roddy Doyle called Ulysses “overlong, overrated, and unmoving” in 2004, Norris made global headlines by calling Doyle “foolish” and “a moderate talent.”) Norris gained international prominence in the 1980s, battling the Irish anti-homosexuality law that once doomed Oscar Wilde to the labor camps. He took the Irish Attorney General to the Supreme Court of Ireland in 1983, losing his case by a 3-to-2 decision, and then fought for his cause at the European Court of Human Rights, which concluded in 1988 that the Irish law violated the European Convention on Human Rights (1953). The Irish anti-homosexuality law was repealed in 1993.
Since then, virtually every Norris quote has sparked Irish media controversy. He called Pope John Paul II an “instrument of evil” and Pope Benedict XVI a “Nazi,” dressing his inflammatory pronouncements with witty literary allusions. Having achieved complete media saturation on the Isle, he logically took his career to the next step, running for an inherently populist position with a translatory role between the government and the people.
He supports Anglophile causes, like the government preservation across Ireland of 18th century Georgian architecture (a lasting vestige of British colonialism) on aesthetic and historical grounds. He is known as the “father” of the ceremonial Irish Seanad (Senate), delivering a May 25 maiden speech upon its most recent opening that “brilliantly” supported the body’s continued existence from a traditionalist view. He is simultaneously the founder of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform (which lobbies Labour Party leaders to push anti-discrimination legislation), proprietor of the first gay club in Dublin, and a visible member of the Protestant Church of Ireland — condemning the Roman Catholic Church as being “above the law.” He is unquestionably the most famous man in the country, a public intellectual to a degree that Americans haven’t known since the WWII generation. For the first four months of his candidacy, he was considered a lock to win the presidency on October 27.
Prime minister Enda Kenny feared him. The nominally conservative leader of the Fine Gael Party, Kenny was swept into office in March on promises of spending cuts — snapping 24 years of centrist Fianna Fáil rule. He managed to win the 2011 elections by brokering a last-minute coalition deal with the leftist Labour Party. So while he managed to reduce Fianna Fáil’s electoral support base by a record 75 percent, he found himself forced to govern alongside Labour, the party diametrically opposed to many of his political views. The last time Fine Gael and Labour shared a majority coalition, between 1994 and 1997, the parties worked together Clinton-Gingrich style to oversee one of the greatest economic periods in modern history (known to the press as the “Celtic Tiger” economy). But that was a long time ago, and respected then-president Mary Robinson was hardly a rabble-rouser, and certainly not a celebrity boychick like Norris. Few things can undermine a prime minister like power plays from his coalition partners, and few things can incite those kinds of power plays like the workings of an unpredictable president.
In mid-July, Kenny backed conservative senator Pat Cox for the Fine Gail presidential nomination, and a shot at upsetting Norris. But his own party elders dismissed his recommendation and instead nominated Gay Mitchell, a weak politician with a history of liabilities. Kenny was incensed. (When a reporter asked him why he looked so disappointed, the PM shot back, “Am I supposed to be going around all the time grinning like the Cheshire Cat?”)
Forced to renegotiate the emergency loans his country took from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in order to make those loan payments more affordable for Ireland, and faced with the previous leadership’s lingering bank-bailout crisis (five insolvent Dublin banks must be propped up to the tune of 50 billion tax Euros, or U.S. $70 billion, a year), Kenny needs all the political solidarity he can get in the major positions of government — even the silly little presidency. Norris, for his part, has stayed safely bipartisan on the matter — railing against the corrupt bankers and shortsighted politicians responsible for the crisis, but steering clear of actual policy analysis in favor of sweeping prayers for the Irish financial system’s “reputation worldwide.”
The economic crisis completely dominates the Isle’s political news, and justifiably so. The go-go “Celtic Tiger” years made politicians cocky, with disastrous results. Fianna Fáil finance minister Charlie McGreevy (1997-2004) helped increase spending by 48 percent during a three-year period while cutting the income tax, drawing blame for the fiscal crisis from legendary former Fine Gael prime minister Garrett FitzGerald. As Michael Lewis reported in Vanity Fair, the country’s budget deficit is now about a third of its GDP, and as recently as March Ireland was the third most likely nation in the world to default. Moody’s downgraded Ireland’s government bond ratings to junk back in July. Reuters placed the nationwide unemployment rate on September 15 at over 14 percent. The Guardian Wednesday wondered if Ireland will be “pushed out of the Euro” currency system. Protests are flaring up across the country, including a recent one in Galway outside Fine Gael’s highly publicized two-day “think-in.”
Ireland is a nation in crisis. And over the spring and summer of 2011, it found itself uniting behind David Norris. A double-digit poll leader from the outset, Norris barnstormed the island like a rock star, talking about Georgian architecture instead of bank bailouts and Irish history instead of Irish economics. For a few blissful months, it was morning in Ireland — just not a morning from this century.
The Nawi scandal broke the first week of August, and Norris promptly fled the country for his “holiday home” in Cyprus. One of the few larger-than-life characters remaining in Europe, Norris for a while experienced a larger-than-life fate: exile. In his absence, the presidential race transformed into something even stranger. The Irish press started reporting that apolitical 77-year-old talk show host Gay Byrne, the Late Late Show host from 1962 to 1999, would seek the presidency from Fianna Fáil.
Johnny Carson without the sociopathy and David Frost without the womanizing, Byrne is known as the “Elder Lemon” of Irish broadcasting. Instantly visions of a televised Norris-Byrne debate played out in people’s minds. It would be an intellectual Olympiad, we all imagined, pitting Norris’ academically-grounded desire to push the culture into liberality against Byrne’s quiet defense of Irish middle-class subtlety and taste. It would have been the most entertaining thing to hit politics since the Mailer-Breslin mayoral ticket. But it never happened.
Norris quoted Samuel Beckett in his official withdrawal speech. Byrne decided not to run. So too did popular favorite Martin Sheen — yes that Martin Sheen, eligible by virtue of his Irish mother. Just as Mitchell and Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins, by default, edged ahead in the polls, paramilitary expert Martin McGuinness “threw his name into the hat” as the Sinn Fein candidate. Though Sinn Fein is an extreme party historically affiliated with the Provisional IRA, McGuinness is running on his peace-negotiation credentials in Northern Ireland and the now popular (and recently, historically executed) platform of welcoming the Queen to the Republic. Even after Norris expressed his desire to re-enter the race Friday, McGuinness topped him in a radio flash poll by seven points.
Though Norris “hopes to” resume campaigning, he faces what Irishcentral.com calls “an uphill battle.” Before the scandal, his independent campaign was well-funded and wildly popular, and his path to getting on the ballot (similar to an American third-party candidate) was paved with gold. In the aftermath of the scandal, it seems he needs to secure a major party nomination. On Wednesday morning, Fianna Fáil — the last contending party without a nominee — announced that it would not endorse any candidate in the presidential election. It was a direct slap in the face to Norris.
If Norris still wants to run as an independent, he needs the signatures of 20 members of the Irish Parliament. Though he wittily refused to tell Ryan Tubridy how many signatures he’s obtained, it is speculated that he currently has about eleven. With the major parties blocking him from the ballot, he needs nine more from the remaining sixteen independent Parliament members. “There is a feeling in political circles,” Tubridy ventured on the Late Late Show, “that the numbers aren’t stacking up for you, senator.”
The Norris campaign, once seemingly scandal-proof by virtue of its sheer candor, has gone down in scandal. Ultimately it doesn’t matter (Mailer and Breslin didn’t win, either) but it deserves a place in the history books. Against the backdrop of economic devastation, one strange and charming old man launched a radical, largely apolitical campaign for an office of no direct importance — and fascinated the public to an unprecedented degree. Was it substantive? Was it sound? No. But it certainly was a great show. In the absence of real consequence, politics sure can be a lot of fun.