David Norris: ‘I have already recorded my own eulogy’

Interview: The Senator and ‘computer virgin’ has no regrets over the 2011 presidential election

Senator David Norris at his home on North Great George's Street. Photograph: Dave Meehan

Senator David Norris at his home on North Great George's Street. Photograph: Dave Meehan

 

“David, are homosexuals sick people?”

“No, indeed they are not. We are neither sick, ill, pathological, neurotic nor any of these emotive terms that are occasionally used by people who are not well-informed on the subject, to conceal their own prejudices.”

“People might wonder could the state of homosexuality be cured, as it were?”

“We’re not ill, so we don’t require a cure.”

The words spoken are from a transcript of an interview broadcast on July 24th, 1975, on an RTÉ television programme called Last House. The interview was by the late presenter, Áine O’Connor.

At that time homosexuality was still a criminal act, and David Norris was the chair of the Irish Gay Rights movement, which had been established a year previously.

In an online archive note, RTÉ says it’s “possibly the first interview with an openly gay person on RTÉ Television”.

Ireland decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, and, two years ago, same-sex marriage became legal. Listening back to that interview of 1975, it’s impossible not to be impressed by Norris’s courage for being so public in his role of attempting to address societal myths and misunderstanding about gay people.

Movements, especially difficult, unpopular ones, need loud voices, and for a long time, Norris was that voice for gay rights.

David Norris, chairman of the National Gay Federation, speaks at a press conference in October 1980 after he had lost a High Court action challenging the constitutionality of the Republic’s laws on homosexuality. Photograph: Pat Langan
David Norris, then chairman of the National Gay Federation, speaks at a press conference in October 1980 after he had lost a High Court action challenging the constitutionality of the Republic’s laws on homosexuality. Photograph: Pat Langan

Roaring coal fire

It’s an afternoon in late May, and I’m sitting sweltering in front of a roaring coal fire in one of the many lovely rooms in the Senator's large Georgian house on North Great Georges Street. He bought it 40 years ago for £25,000.

I’m here courtesy of someone called Miriam, who has been the go-between on email to organise the interview. Unusually for someone in public service in 2017, Norris does not use a computer.

“I don’t like them. I’m a computer virgin and I hope to go to my grave a computer virgin,” he declares with obvious satisfaction. “I’ve never switched one on or off. I’ve never sent a text message either.”

There’s a television of a certain vintage in the room, with a large cathode tube at the back. Norris, now 73, uses it to watch his two favourite programmes, Flog It! and Antiques Roadshow.

Senator David Norris gives a recitation from ‘Ulysses’ on the steps of the James Joyce Centre in North Great Georges Street on Bloomsday, June 1998. Photograph: David Sleator
Senator David Norris gives a recitation from ‘Ulysses’ on the steps of the James Joyce Centre in North Great Georges Street on Bloomsday, June 1998. Photograph: David Sleator

He says he listens to the radio a lot, referring to RTÉ radio, rather quaintly, as “Radio Éireann”. He taps his jacket as he’s telling me this, looking for something. “I have a little tranny that fits into my vest pocket,” he explains.

Does he access the internet?

“No.”

So if he wants to research something for the Seanad, how does he do it?

“I keep my ears open and I listen, and I ask questions,” he says. “But if I need additional information, first of all the Oireachtas library service is very good, and they provide briefing documents and I look at those.” Norris also says, “I sit in the garden and think. Very few people think.”

He pronounces this last statement with the emphasis on the words: Very few people think.

Natural performer

Norris worked as a lecturer at Trinity College for almost 30 years, and has been serving as a senator since 1987. He is a natural performer and, as the interview progresses, he becomes ever more declamatory. He appears to thrive on an audience, even an audience of one.

For instance, about halfway through the interview, he is actually delivering his answers at a volume more suited to oration in the Seanad, although there are only two of us in the room and we are mere feet apart; but more about that later.

How do you keep up with what’s happening, if you don’t use a computer or the internet, I ask?

“I ask Miriam,” he replies.

Miriam – “my wonderful political adviser and secretary” – is Miriam Gordon Smith, who has worked for Norris for 21 years.

Norris has a mobile phone, but doesn’t know the number. “Miriam is one of a very small number of people who know the number.”

Miriam appears to be Norris’s personal human Google. “I get onto Miriam, and I say, Miriam, would you go and have a twiddle and see what you can find about this?”

I’m puzzled that he doesn’t appear to want to do his own research, which most people in similar positions tend to be quite possessive about. Would he not prefer to do his own?

“No. I wouldn’t,” he says flatly.“She just pushes a button and prints it off, and there I have it,” he shrugs.

Do you think it’s a big responsibility for Miriam?

“We’re a team. I think it’s great. We are a very good team.”

David Norris and Panti Bliss at Dublin Castle on May 23rd, 2015, for the Referendums on Marriage Equality and Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
David Norris and Panti Bliss at Dublin Castle on May 23rd, 2015 celebrate the result of the marriage equality referendum. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Twitter campaign

At one point, Norris, when talking about the 2013 referendum about retaining or abolishing the Seanad, tells me he “mounted a Twitter campaign” to save the Seanad. “And I had 47,000 followers,” he relates proudly.

Hang on, I say, I thought you said you never touched a computer?

“I invent the words. I put together the message. Other people do the twiddling. Or tweeting. Or whatever you call it.”

As it happens, I had looked at Norris’s Twitter account before going to interview him. He currently has 46,411 followers on @SenDavidNorris. There are 984 tweets in his timeline to date, only nine of them sent or retweeted since last August.

The ninth tweet currently in his timeline was sent at 10.46pm on August 23rd last year. It read: “The Rose of Tralee tweets are a scream.”

Did he really call up Miriam or whoever else does “the twiddling” for him at 10.46pm that August night and ask them to send out that throwaway comment?

He must have, because he’s killed telling me he doesn’t personally tweet, doesn’t know how to use a computer, and has a mobile phone that only makes calls.

The coal fire is so efficient that I have to migrate from the sofa in front of it to a chair by the window. As I get up to move, I notice a large basket of turf.

“Some of that turf is from Laois. From Birr Castle,” Norris explains, who tells me he visits Lord and Lady Ross as a house guest, often leaving with the gift of a bag of turf.

Isn’t Birr in Co Offaly? Norris laughs. “Oh yes, but I regard the whole of the midlands as Laois.” Later, in another room, I spot a bottle of sparkling water from Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan, to where Norris tells me he is also invited as a house guest.

The table in the room where we are sitting is set with crystal and silverware for four for dinner, although nobody is expected. “I’m like Miss Havisham,” he jokes.

Unresolved social issue

The gay rights Norris represented were a huge social issue in 1975, and remained so for a long time. What does he think is the unresolved social issue of 2017?

“The Eighth Amendment; absolutely unequivocally,” he says. “It is the big, big, big problem confronting Irish society. I don’t think anyone likes abortion, but there are circumstances in which I think it is the best option.

He hopes any future referendum “won’t be shrill on the Yes side”.

“The Marriage Referendum went through because people were not arrogant, and they didn’t try to push their ideas over on top of the unwilling public . . . There was no bullying from our side.”

So would the man who ran, withdrew and then re-entered the presidential election in 2011 consider running again next year?

“No, absolutely not,” he confirms. It’s at this point in the interview that the volume increases significantly.

David Norris with his former partner Ezra Nawi: When Nawi was convicted of statutory rape by an Israeli court in 1997, Norris wrote a letter on Oireachtas notepaper asking the court for leniency
David Norris with his former partner Ezra Nawi

There were two key elements of controversy in Norris’s presidential campaign in 2011. One was an interview that he had given some years before, to journalist Helen Lucy Burke, that resurfaced during the campaign. The quote that was attributed to Norris was this:

“. . . in terms of classic paedophilia as practised by the Greeks, where it is an older man introducing a younger man or boy to adult life, I think there can be something to be said for that.”

‘Classic Greek pederasty’

He says now: “There was a mistake in [the interview], which I had asked her to correct: mangling the word paedophilia with pederasty. I was talking about classic Greek pederasty.”

His mistake, he says, is that he accidently used the word “paedophilia” instead of “pederasty”.

Pederasty is defined by the Online Oxford Dictionary as “sexual activity involving a man and a boy”. Its origin is early 17th century, from “Greek paiderasta”.

I ask what his views are now on pederasty.

“I think that gay sexuality is not the same as heterosexuality,” he replies. “You cannot mention the age of consent, paedophilia, pederasty, any of these things – you can’t discuss them because people get hysterical.”

“I think for example, if a young athlete of 16, 17, in the gym is tutored by an older man . . . I think that would be a very much preferable introduction to sexuality than the kind of thing people of my generation experienced, which was hanging around public lavatories.”

Does he not think one person in that situation is in an inappropriate position of control over the other?

“Oh, God,” Norris says, with a loud sigh. “I don’t think it’s worth discussing even, because we have come at it with such very different standpoints. I think it’s a kind of feminist thing actually, to be honest with you.”

What’s the “it’s” he is referring to when he says “it’s a kind of feminist thing”?

“The whole thing about imbalance of power and exploitation and all this kind of thing,” he says. “I mean let me tell you,” – his volume increases again – “I used the word ‘fanny’ in the Seanad. I was descended on by a horde of outraged lesbians, for using the word ‘fanny’, by which I meant the backside.”

Body part

He says now that he used the word “fanny” because he didn’t want to use the word “arse”, which is the body part he thought he was referring to.

Norris is referring to 2013, when he said that Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty had been “talking out of her fanny” when saying she thought the Seanad should be abolished.

He later said “I regret any offence”, but did not offer an apology to Doherty.

Norris says after the complaints about his remarks to Doherty, he reminded his female colleagues of the abuse he had received during the presidential election, two years previously.

“I’ll tell you this, there was such outrage over the word ‘fanny’, but I brought it to the attention of some of my female colleagues [that] they were joking about me on RTÉ, that I’d enjoy it ‘up the arse’, and the noise that I made when I was having sex with children. They thought it was funny. They thought it was funny.”

Who thought this “joking” was funny?

“My colleagues.”

Where?

“In the Seanad.”

How do you know that?

“Because I asked them! How else would I know?” he bellows.

Senator David Norris at his home on North Great Georges Street. Photograph: Dave Meehan
Senator David Norris at his home on North Great Georges Street. Photograph: Dave Meehan

The second controversial element of Norris’s 2011 presidential campaign was a revelation that in 1997, he had written a letter on Oireachtas notepaper to an Israeli court, on behalf of his former partner, Ezra Yitzhak Nawi.

Nawi, then 45, had been found guilty of statutory rape with a boy of 15. Norris asked for clemency. Nawi served three months in prison.

Why did he write that letter?

‘Very foolish’

Norris looks at me in disbelief. “Wouldn’t anybody? If you have a friend and it is somebody you love and they are in trouble?” he says.

“Ezra was very foolish, but it would not be a criminal case now because they have reduced the age of consent. It wouldn’t be criminal at all now.” (The age of consent in Israel is 16, so a similar case today would in fact also be criminal.)

“I didn’t approve of it at all, I can assure you, and I was not happy when I found out about it, but Ezra didn’t tell me when the incident occurred. He didn’t tell me when it went to court. He didn’t tell me when he was convicted. His lawyer contacted me at the stage of the appeal.”

Did he not think it was an error of judgment to write the letter on official State paper?

“No I didn’t. There was no reason not to,” he asserts firmly.

Why did he interfere in something that had nothing to do with him?

“Of course it was to do with me! How could you possibly make out it was nothing to do with me? I had invested years in a relationship with Ezra. How could it not have anything to do with me?”

I point out he could have said no to the lawyer’s request to intervene.

“I could have said no, but wouldn’t that have been a wonderful friend? Wouldn’t that have been wonderful? Oh, I’d have been so proud of myself, saying no.”

Even now, knowing what he does and how it contributed to losing him support in the election, Norris does not regret sending that correspondence.

“I absolutely do not. I am proud of those letters. And in my opinion, anybody who wouldn’t do it is a thorough shit; to let down a friend when they are in difficulty.”

Follow-up question

The following week, I track down Norris on the phone – via Miriam – to ask him a follow-up question on this subject.

How would he describe the fact that his former partner, then 45, was charged with statutory rape of a 15-year-old boy: as paedophilia or pederasty?

Norris hesitates. He does not answer the question directly. “It’s a very difficult thing to go into,” he says. “I didn’t approve of his [Nawi’s] behaviour at all.”

He says pederasty doesn’t have any place in modern life, but it had led to “particular values”.

Before I leave Norris’s home in North Great Georges Street, I ask him what he thought his eventual retirement from public office would bring.

“Death!” he laughs. “And a quite glorious funeral,” he adds, with gusto.

“I have organised it down to the last detail.” There will be “a Haydn Mass, a bit of Mozart, two lovely little weepy Victorian hymns, a proper Communion service, incense, the works, the ballad of Joe Hill, and then a jazz band”.

As for the eulogy, Norris will be delivering it himself. “And I am doing the talk. I have already recorded it professionally.”

David Norris, ever the orator, even at his own funeral – at some time in the future.