THE PRESIDENTIAL election is months away and no candidates have yet been nominated but Independent Senator David Norris is facing questions over a 2002 magazine interview in which he made unwise and ambiguous statements about paedophilia and incest. Mr Norris believes the resurrection of this controversy is aimed at sabotaging his attempt to win support from county councils and Oireachtas members for an independent run for the presidency.
He argues that his remarks were quoted out of context and that an academic discussion of attitudes to human sexuality in classical Greece should not be seen as a considered representation of his views on sexual morality today. Pointing to his record as an international advocate for human rights, he says his credentials as a champion of the rights of women and children are clear and beyond reproach.
Mr Norris acknowledged yesterday that he was foolish to have made the comments in 2002 and he should not perhaps have been surprised if they were misinterpreted. There is more than a whiff of prejudice, however, about much of the commentary surrounding the revival of this controversy, notably the implied slur that gay people represent a threat to the young.
As a young man, he showed unusual courage in openly acknowledging his sexual orientation at a time when homosexual activity was not only illegal in this State but when being openly gay could threaten employment prospects, family relationships and even personal safety. In this hostile atmosphere, Mr Norris not only campaigned with allies such as Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson for the decriminalisation of homosexuality, he provided in Dublin’s Hirschfeld Centre an opportunity for young gay men and women to meet openly in a safe environment as an alternative to furtive encounters in parks and public lavatories.
As a gay activist in the 1980s and early 1990s, he also helped to provide services for gay men with Aids, a condition that then often meant a lonely illness and death for young people whose lives had scarcely begun. In helping to secure civil rights for today’s young gays and lesbians, he has made an important contribution to making this society more open, tolerant and pluralist.
None of this gives Mr Norris an automatic right to secure a nomination or to be elected to the highest office in the State. His political opponents and potential rivals will have ample opportunity in the weeks ahead to elaborate arguments against his becoming president. The fact that he is gay should not be among them.