'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.
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.
With Jane Cregan out of the picture, there was general agreement that we needed a Rottweiler who would be tough and capable of dealing with the press. Eddie suggested the PR man Paul Allen, who had known his brother since schooldays. Allen had offered help earlier in the campaign, when I bumped into him in Leinster House, so we got in touch with him.
Liam and the others thought my bid was probably finished, while I oscillated between optimism and despair, but Muireann and Miriam were encouraging me to hang in. I now think they were right, but in the circumstances of that weekend I was under enormous pressure because the media would not let up.
There was huge pressure on me to say I was wrong, which is why there is a nod in that direction in the withdrawal speech. I said then that I didn’t think I was sufficiently sympathetic to the young man – but in fact I was the only one who was in any way sympathetic.
I am proud of those letters, and if they ever emerge I hope the moralisers cringe with shame. I will not be publishing them; I stand by my principles on that matter.
On the Tuesday morning Eddie and I drove back into town. I had decided to withdraw, and I had been discussing the exit with Liam, Muireann and Paul Allen. We went around the back of Muireann and Tony’s house and worked on the speech in the kitchen. Allen suggested I finish with a quote from Joyce, but I thought that was too predictable and went for a line that had come to me as Eddie and I crossed the Samuel Beckett Bridge that morning.
The press pack was still outside No 18, and a news release was issued to the media that I would be making an announcement at 2pm. The speech was still being finalised at 1.50pm, and at 1.55pm Tony Collins and Ger Siggins were still wrestling with a recalcitrant printer as they hurriedly collated and stapled copies of the speech.
A throng of media people had gathered outside my front door. They assumed I was inside the house, and none of them noticed what was going on until I got out of the car and made my way through the crowd to my doorway, saying, “I have something to say which you may wish to hear.”
When it was finished I turned and walked into my home, where Michael and Abby had tea and biscuits ready, and we just sat around, going through old photo albums and talking about our parents, until the reporters cleared off. Eddie and Morgan’s wives, Dorothy and Katiani, had made some food, and we had a delicious buffet as Muireann, Miriam and her husband, Noel, joined us for the postmortem.
I decided I didn’t want to hang around Dublin any longer, and the following afternoon I flew to Cyprus for a break. After I pulled out the public remained loyal – and in one opinion poll I was still the most popular choice as the next president of Ireland, even though I was no longer in the race.
I spent six weeks in the Troodos Mountains, but halfway through that period I started getting calls from Ireland saying that the campaign office, which was in the process of being wound down, had received 3,000 emails pleading with me to rejoin the race.
I flew home in the first week in September with my mind made up to give it another go. On The Late Late Show I told Ryan Tubridy that I was actively seeking a nomination, and that it would be the biggest comeback in Irish political history if I got one.
With 12 days left to go I was facing an uphill battle.
Since the election I have had no contact with Ezra. When the storm about the letters broke I’d rung him in Sweden, where he was receiving some accolade for his human-rights work. I told him that the story of his conviction was about to come out and that the media would undoubtedly be on to him, so I asked him not to talk to them, to which he agreed.
To my dismay he then talked to one of the tabloid newspapers, so I rang and told him it was the only time in my life I had ever asked him to do something for me and I was sorry that he wouldn’t do it. I begged him not to do it again.
A couple of days later he did a live interview on the one o’clock RTÉ news. So I rang him again and begged he remain silent, but again he did another major interview, with The Irish Times.
The sad thing is that while I had come to an accommodation with all of Ezra’s faults, the media couldn’t leave it alone. What they have succeeded in doing is make me numb. I now neither love nor hate Ezra; I am simply indifferent. I respect his wonderful work, but I am completely, at least for the time being, frozen to him as a friend. I doubt this is an achievement of which any decent journalist could feel proud: the final destruction of 40 years of love and friendship that I had worked desperately to preserve in its various forms.
Michael D Higgins is a remarkable and gifted man, and he has my continued friendship, loyalty and complete support. If I had been elected, it would have represented a tectonic shift in Irish politics, public life and society. It would have been global news, and I regret that didn’t happen, because it would have advanced things for minorities the world over, particularly gay people.
I had worried that Michael D’s election would mean every lever of power in the land would be in the hands of the Government, but, although it might appear to be so, he has proved himself to be strongly independent, and I have no doubt he will continue to speak out when he sees fit.
He has already shown himself to be a great president and a worthy successor to the two Marys in the short time he has been in office. Yes, indeed, the forces of reaction did succeed in getting rid of one liberal, but their underhanded tactics have blown up in their faces and brought in a gallant, courageous and thoroughly liberal man in Michael D Higgins.
In retrospect, the whole thing has shaken out beautifully, as we have a superb president: an honourable man who will put his neck on the line for the marginalised and the vulnerable. And I’m where I should be also, on the backbenches of Seanad Éireann, saying the things nobody else in this country is prepared to say.
As I approach 70, with plenty of vitality, I can still look forward to going to Cyprus several times a year. On the other hand, if I had won I would have had to ask the permission of the Government to go to my house there. I’ve always been a servant of the public, but now I feel entitled to be a little more self-indulgent with the last phase of my life, and spend more of it with my friends.
© David Norris 2012. Extracted from A Kick Against the Pricks, published by Transworld Ireland