Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Senator fights in new war of independence

The election of the openly gay David Norris as president would signify the Republic's arrival as a liberal democracy. But will the big parties let him run, asks Henry McDonald

In spite of being under tabloid bombardment over remarks he made back in 2002, David Norris is seemingly still the people's favourite to succeed Mary McAleese as Irish president. And, yet, if the southern party-political machines get their way, the people won't even get a chance to vote for him.

First the so-called 'scandal' which threatened to put the skids under the Dublin senator's campaign for the presidency. Norris is openly gay and has been a vocal champion of gay rights for almost four decades.

In 2002, he gave an interview to the current affairs magazine Magill, which was conducted by the waspish Dublin restaurant critic Helen Lucy Burke.

In it, he appeared to endorse the ancient Greek practice of older gay men having sex with young boys. Norris strenuously denied he was approving any form of paedophilia and pointed to his long record in standing up for the rights of children who were abused in the state - especially those who suffered in church-run institutions. He also claimed that his remarks were taken out of context.

The interview resurfaced as Lucy Burke rang an RTE radio show and all hell, it seemed, had broken loose. Regardless of Norris's protestations and denials, any association of his campaign with the 'P' word appeared fatal.

However, the people seemed to accept his explanation - at least if you believe opinion polls over the last few weeks. They continue to put him far of ahead of any potential rivals, placing him in a strong position to launch a bid to become the next president of the Republic.

But the people are not the first to speak when it comes to electing the president because every potential candidate has to clear a preliminary hurdle before they can enter the race.

They must either gain the backing of 20 members of the Dail or have the nomination of several county councils across the Republic in order to qualify as a presidential candidate.

In relation to the councils, Norris faces two barriers. The first is moral-religious, particularly in rural, conservative parts of the Republic where his open homosexuality and sometimes off-the-cuff radicalism is viewed with some suspicion. The Lucy Burke interview only heightens that suspicion. The second barrier is the influence the political parties exert on their councillors. Fine Gael, for instance, wants to run a candidate and there are at least three potential runners in the field.

They will not let Fine Gael councillors support Norris given that, even in the face of the controversy, he still poses a threat to whomever they finally choose to succeed President McAleese.

The same goes for the Dail, of course, where the party machines have an even tighter grip on their deputies. And, with Labour now throwing its weight behind Michael D Higgins, there is now even less likelihood that the junior partner in the coalition will throw Norris a lifeline.

Norris needs just 20 TDs for nomination and, at present, he is tantalisingly close to the line. Around 12 radical Dail deputies, including TDs from the left-wing People Before Profit and the Socialist Party have pledged support. He is now just eight TDs short of reaching the magic number and that, in turn, puts the focus on Sinn Fein.

With its 14 TDs, Sinn Fein could easily provide enough votes for Norris to reach the required amount and challenge for the presidency. The problem for Norris is that he and Sinn Fein have past form.

During the Troubles, Norris was an outspoken critic of IRA violence and took part in many demonstrations in Dublin against Provisional outrages. He was an early champion of the peace process and can point out with accuracy that he backed moves to bring Sinn Fein in from the cold even before the IRA laid down its arms. Norris can also argue that he defended their presence at all-party talks and fully supports today's power-sharing arrangement with Martin McGuinness as deputy First Minister.

Nonetheless, Norris's bid for the presidency presents Sinn Fein with a headache, as many among the rank-and-file still have visceral memories of his past opposition.

However, on the plus side, Sinn Fein could gain from being seen to publicly back a popular independent candidate like Norris; with a victory for the senator likely to rebound positively for the party in the autumn.

One thing is for sure: even at present, the level of support he is enjoying among the public indicates that, when it comes to liberal social issues, the electorate are ahead of the party machines.

If nominated and then elected to Aras an Uachtarain, it would signal that the liberal revolution in the Republic has reached its apex.

His elevation to president would also throw a giant mirror on politics north of the border - particularly towards an Assembly where there are, supposedly, no representatives from the gay community whatsoever.

The contrast between the increasingly tolerant south and a society in the north still held back by the forces of social conservatism would be glaring.

All that, of course, is contingent on whether the party machines will let the people's voice be heard and David Norris is allowed to put his name forward in order to make history.

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