'If I had been elected, it would have been a tectonic shift in Irish politics'
In an extract from his new autobiography, ‘A Kick Against the Pricks’, Senator David Norris reflects on the controversial presidential election campaign of 2011, which saw him lose friends, supporters and the election itself but from which he has emerged wiser and with few regrets
CHRISTMAS 2010 was a childhood dream in Dublin, a real white Christmas. The snow around lay thick and deep and cast an unusual mantle of pristine purity even over the north inner city. A young newly engaged couple living temporarily in a flat across the street from my house took the opportunity to build a wonderful, traditional, larger-than-life-size snowman.
He had a battered felt hat, little black eyes of coal, a carrot nose and orange-peel mouth. I even seem to remember a small tattered scarf. Beside him was built from solid snow, like the blocks of an igloo, a throne on which the young couple photographed each other. Other people drifting up the street also took the opportunity; there was a sense of happiness and celebration.
Then up the street came the sound of what might be taken as merriment, the nasal voices of three teenage girls united inharmoniously in the chorus of a pop song. Then they spotted the snowman. First of all like everyone else they took a few photographs on their telephones, but quickly the playfulness turned nasty.
One of them knocked the hat off, then the nose was tweaked away. Then a frenzy of destruction took place until the only remnants of the snowman were a scatter of smeared lumps. As they passed the bewildered creators of the image one of them sneered, “We killed your f**kin’ snowman for you, mister.”
Helen Lucy Burke was a waspish little woman. She had never been a friend or colleague, indeed scarcely even an acquaintance. She had been an official at Dublin County Council but also contributed restaurant reviews to various publications. In the pages of the Sunday Tribune she wrote coruscatingly about food, and she later turned to reviewing hotels.
She parted company with Vincent Browne quite suddenly, leading to a midnight phone call in which he asked me to take over her restaurant column. I did it for six months before I started getting hate mail from people who said they objected to me eating while people were starving in Ethiopia. It was becoming a chore, and I was keen to get out of it, when I discovered Vincent had beaten me to it. One day I sauntered into the office to collect my post when I found a note in my pigeonhole that went something along these lines:
When I gave you the job of restaurant critic six months ago you protested that you knew nothing about food and wine, and I didn’t believe you then; I do now.
I elaborated on some of these details and turned it into a story that was popular with my after-dinner audiences but may not, I realise, have endeared me to the acerbic Miss Burke.
She returned to the post on my departure, and the next I heard of her was before Christmas 2001, when she rang to request an interview for Magill magazine. It was the run-up to an election, and at first I refused to meet her, but she persevered.
I was tired of being endlessly interrogated about sexual matters and having everything I said distorted and sensationalised, so I put it to her that she could not ask me questions of a sexual nature, and she agreed.
A week or two later she rang while I was getting ready to go abroad to report on sexual abuse in Thailand for the UN. She read me two or three paragraphs from her piece, where I spotted that she had blurred the distinction I had made between paedophilia and classic Greek pederasty. It’s quite easy to mix these two phrases up, and I think that I did so myself, but they have different meanings. I asked her to change paedophilia to pederasty.
It emerged in 2011 that the editor had also instructed that the article should be typed up and the full transcript shown to me. This was never done. In the Magill article our wide-ranging discussion was distilled down to the controversial parts where I examined Plato’s Symposium.
I flew off to do my work, but when I got back I was confronted with a front-page story in Ireland on Sunday headlined “Senator backs sex with children” and “Fury at gay’s ‘paedophilia is OK’ message”. I was dumbstruck. I immediately went on RTÉ radio to explain.
I did an interview with Joe Jackson in the Sunday Independent within the next few days to make it plain that I abhorred child abuse and had a record in battling it. In the interview I pointed out how I had asked for corrections that weren’t made, which provoked a phone call from Miss Burke.
She told me, “I take great offence at your impugning of my professional standards,” but hadn’t a word of sympathy for the hell she had put me through. I told her to listen to the tapes and if I wasn’t correct in what I said to call me back. I never heard from her again.
On May 30th, 2011, we got a call saying she was going to be on Liveline to talk about the Magill article and the producer wanted to know would I go on too. She was astonishingly cruel and negative, calling what she presented as my views “astounding” and “evil”, and left dangling the slur “He was going off on his holidays to Thailand,” although I had told her the purpose of my mission.
She openly stated that her intention was to stop me getting a nomination, thereby depriving the Irish people of their right to choose: a curious view of democracy.
That unpleasant controversy blew over quickly, but there would be more later in the campaign.
In the last week of July Miriam Smith, my valiant and loyal PA, took a call from someone who said he worked for a Sunday newspaper. He claimed to have letters that showed I had asked for clemency in some kind of legal case involving my former partner Ezra Nawi and sex with a minor in Israel, and he asked if I wanted to make a comment, as they proposed to publish the correspondence.
Miriam rang me, and once she mentioned the correspondence I remembered the incident. She went back through the files again and found eight letters that had gone back and forth to various lawyers in Israel in 1997. We had earlier presumed that 10 years was far enough back to go to compile the skeleton file, but this had happened long before that point.
I had forgotten all about it; I was always getting Ezra out of trouble – on one occasion I gave him a sum of money so large I would be embarrassed to mention it, to get him out of a tight spot with his finances – and helped pay for his house.
When we dug the letters out of the archive I was prepared to stand by them. I believe in loyalty, and if a friend is in trouble that is when you are called on to help them. I have no time for fair-weather friends. I also have no apology to make to anyone over the letters I sent. I knew Ezra’s vulnerability and emotional volatility. He told me that as a young man he had shot part of his leg off because he didn’t want to serve in the army; of course I was going to write a letter to help him when [he was] confronted with prison.
He had concealed the story from me at the time the offence was committed, and indeed five years later, when he was tried and convicted. I knew nothing about what had happened until he was appealing the severity of the sentence. I wrote several letters asking for clemency and explaining Ezra’s fragile state.