'If I had been elected, it would have been a tectonic shift in Irish politics'
I brought the matter to the attention of Liam McCabe, a golf-course entrepreneur from Co Kilkenny and a key figure in the campaign, and he called a meeting of the most senior members of the team. I sat and waited while Derek Murphy, director of elections, Jane Cregan, my PR agent, Liam, and Muireann Noonan, a friend, neighbour and distinguished barrister, read the letters.
At one stage I saw Jane grimace, and I asked her, “Can I take it you’re staying with the campaign?” She told me, “Now is not the time to discuss that.” It was the last thing she ever said to me, but soon afterwards I was to see on the nine o’clock news a picture of a telephone and hear her taped message telling callers she no longer worked for the Norris campaign.
The following evening, there was a meeting of the wider committee of 15 in my basement, which I very much wanted to attend. I told Liam I had a responsibility to put the letters in context, as I was the only person who knew the background to it all.
There had been a suggestion that I had deliberately concealed the letters from the team, which I absolutely had not, and I wanted to nail that lie too.
But I was told that I could not go downstairs, that people were hysterical with rage. Liam told me, “I don’t want you in this house. Take yourself away from here and I’ll telephone you when the meeting’s over.” I believe now that that was a disastrous move.
The meeting was due to start at 5.30pm, so about an hour before, I drove out on my own to Howth Head and parked overlooking the sea. I was going back over it all in my head, walking around in circles, barely taking in the beautiful scenery. What was most difficult was the people coming up to say hello and telling me I was doing well in the election when I knew exactly what was happening just a few miles away.
That summer’s evening in Howth I found myself thrown out of my own home by people who had misunderstood the essential loyalty and decency of both my nature and my acts. That was the nadir for me.
I was in Howth for hour after hour, waiting for the phone to ring, so at 9.30pm I called Liam and said, “What on earth is happening? Don’t tell me the meeting is still going on?” And Liam said, “I’m sorry, I forgot to ring you. I’m on my way home to Kilkenny.”
When I asked whether the team had resigned, he equivocated and told me it was up to me to make the decision. It was a very unhappy night. It turned out that three or four relatively significant members of the team had indeed walked away.
The following morning I was in the kitchen washing the vessels while listening to Newstalk. John Drennan from the Sunday Independent and Ming Flanagan were on, discussing the latest developments. Ming told how he and his wife had agreed the night before that they would have no problem having David Norris babysit their children. Drennan came in with, “Well, I wouldn’t let him within an ass’s roar of mine.” My heart lurched and I nearly dropped the cup I was drying.
“Why?” he was asked.
“Because he’d bore the bejaysus out of them talking about Plato and Joyce,” he replied.
And I thought to myself, That is one great lad, because that’s the right answer.
So when we were discussing a media strategy I insisted I would only talk to Drennan. I knew him from around Leinster House and was never particularly close to him – I even used to tease him that he came across as a sour-faced tit who was a disgrace to the midland bogs we both came from. He was the last person I expected to give me a fair hearing, but at least on this occasion my misjudgment was a positive one.
Because the man who called Miriam had said he was going to publish the letters, we decided to release the longest and most detailed one to the Sunday Independent to accompany the interview. But, as it turned out, none of the other Sunday papers printed the letters. It was a lie all the time. They never had the letters. It was a classic and mean-minded journalistic sting, but, thanks to my naivety and the lack of political experience of some of my team, it worked.
I invited John over on Friday morning, and we did the interview in the kitchen. There was a constant ringing, banging and hammering at the door from the media. It got so bad that at one stage we were forced to move out to the garden. The interview took several hours, and by the time John left several vans and cars were double-parked outside.
I rang Michael Moran and told him I was asking for a real favour: could I come and stay with him and his wife, Abigail, for a few days? Like true friends they immediately said yes.
Because the media were at the front door, the only way out was across the roof, so I rang Eddie Kenny in the Cobalt Café, two doors up, and asked for his help. I told him I was going to climb over the parapet on the roof, along a ledge and then over another parapet to his house. I asked him to leave his skylight open.
But, after talking with Muireann, Eddie firmly told me not to do that because I was so distraught that I could have easily fallen – and then the press would have said I’d jumped.
Eddie told me to pack my bags and go up to the roof, where his sons Jamie and Adam would collect them from me. He then told me to saunter across the road to Muireann’s house as if I was going for tea.
As I crossed the street, at about eight o’clock, I was accosted by two young women who said they were from the Sun and, to its eternal disgrace if true, The Irish Times. I didn’t know either of them. They came out with the usual line, “We want to tell your side of the story,” to which I gave a wintry acknowledgment.
Muireann’s son, Faoláin Collins, who had been included in all the plans, opened the door, and I walked through their house, out the back, down the garden and into the lane at the rear, where Eddie had the engine running in his classic green Mercedes. I leaned down below the window, so I wouldn’t be seen, and we zoomed across the top of North Great Georges Street and down the lane behind the houses where Eddie’s lads were waiting, to collect my bags.
On the way out to Monkstown I got a call from Finian McGrath. I told him we were in crisis mode but asked for three days while I saw how it developed. I suspected from his tone that he was jumping, and I told Eddie that was probably me out of the race, at which he burst into tears.
But Finian couldn’t wait and yet again went to the media. He really dropped me in the manure by talking about the protection of children, which sounded to me as if I was a threat instead of one of the staunchest defenders of the rights of children and young people. Finian had been first in. Now he was first out.
Michael and Abby had a comfortable room ready for me in their home, and I spent a lovely bank-holiday weekend with them, catching up on old memories. It was my 67th birthday on the Sunday, and we had a small party, with delicious roast lamb for dinner, and cake and balloons sent out by Muireann and her family. What I thought was going to be the worst birthday of my life instead turned out to be one of the best.