Equilibrium and ebullience return as Norris battles through the firestorm


The media is on watch for signs of cracking as the Áras campaign takes an unpleasant turn, writes MIRIAM LORD

AT THE outset, may we say we are getting a very positive reception on the ground. Oh yes, a very positive response.

What else can they say? Yet, as the candidates smile and hone their sweet nothings, there is no getting away from the fact that this presidential campaign has taken a particularly vicious turn.

They soldiered valiantly on yesterday, spreading their caring messages of inclusion and hope while studiously ignoring the black pall of smoke lingering after the latest bloody skirmish. But there is more than a touch of the walking wounded about the Áras Seven now.

Apart from Michael D, who is the only candidate still relatively unscathed. For now.

Oh, for a return to the blessed serenity of ordinary decent blackguarding in the Dáil.

But there are two more weeks to go and heaven only knows what might happen next.

So, after a particularly bruising Prime Timedebate on Wednesday night, the candidates licked their wounds, climbed back on board their bandwagons and pressed on.

David Norris was out and about in Dublin. He began with a little speech followed by a short press conference at the Famine Memorial on the quays.

It’s a haunting work of art and it provided a dramatic backdrop for the Senator to outline how he would use his presidency to reach out to the Irish abroad. “I want to act as an ambassador for those forced to emigrate,” he declared.

He is recovering from his disastrous re-entry into the race. He describes the media onslaught he experienced as a “firestorm”, although his unsatisfactory handling of the situation was one of the reasons it happened.

Legitimate questions about his judgment, particularly in relation to the Nawi clemency letters and his academic ruminations on the age of consent, were followed by a barrage of stories about his past.

“At one stage, if you were to believe all that was printed, David was a blind, alcoholic welfare cheat. It was so unfair,” remarked a supporter.

The media bombardment took its toll. Leinster House colleagues, from all sides, privately worried about his state of mind. He looked and sounded increasingly distraught.

There is something not right about all of this. Election campaigns are not pretty, particularly when the presidency is at stake. For all the high-flown guff the candidates must come out with, it is essentially a high-stakes job interview, when policy takes a back seat and character comes under the microscope.

When it’s about ascending to the Áras, it gets personal.

Nonetheless, there is something unsettling about going along to hear a candidate make his pitch when part of the interest lies in whether or not he might disintegrate before your eyes. That’s how bad things are now.

But it was good to see Norris seems to have recovered his equilibrium and ebullience. Few now rate his chances of winning the election but yesterday, the reason so many people wanted him to run in the first place was at least visible again.

So he stood and declaimed in front of Rowan Gillespie’s

statues – the sculptor himself came along – and spoke passionately about those many Irishmen and women who went abroad to work and now, many years later, find themselves alone and with no support from their home country.

Admirable as his sentiments were, more immediate issues were on the minds of the media.

Just as Norris appears to be weathering his particular storm, another candidate is in the firing line. At the end of that Prime Time debate, Dana’s astonishing outburst about “vile” forthcoming allegations about her family set the nation talking.

Nothing appeared and then Dana disappeared, leaving the country to indulge in wild speculation.

What had Senator Norris to say about Dana’s statement? Having just been through a deeply personal ordeal of his own, he had no intention of getting involved.

“I think that is a matter for Dana, but I felt intensely sorry for her,” he said, describing the difficult scene in the RTÉ studio in the immediate aftermath of her emotional statement.

“My first reaction was to give her a hug, and then my other colleagues gathered around and we comforted her. I found her brother – she had members of her family with her – and I suggested she should leave quickly because she was distressed.”

As Senator Norris painted a picture of what happened to Dana when the studio lights went down, again there is the feeling that something is not quite right about all of this.

“I was very sorry to see that,” he said. “She’s a very decent woman. Personally, I like her very much and I get on well with her, even if I don’t agree with her views.”

He was pressed again. Should she release the information? Perhaps mindful of the calls made on him to release the controversial Nawi letters, he said he couldn’t comment.

Lawyers are involved in both instances and they may yet be called upon when this is all over.

Pointing out that Dana intervened during the debate with “what was clearly the threat of legal action”, Norris remarked he has also contemplated taking a certain course.

“I’ve been clearly libelled, clearly slandered . . . I’ve certainly assembled some files, yes.” He was asked if he would consider going to the courts if he doesn’t win.

“I think that there are some people in the media in this country who may have a vested interest in hoping that I win, put it that way,” he replied.

Then, as he does, he buttered up the journalists, saying he understands the pressure they are under to deliver stories. In fact, he is a member of three unions, among them the NUJ.

“I’m still a good old leftie, despite the suit!” For the time being, the Senator is back to his effervescent self. And he rallied, moving away from talk of his “painful” few weeks.

“This is not a time for talking about taking action. The only action I want to take is to take the oath in Dublin Castle on my father’s 116th birthday – Armistice Day, November 11th, 2011.” Then he toddled off, delighted with himself.

One hard-bitten hack turned to us and whispered: “Ah, he’s a decent enough old stick, really”.

You see, everyone has a heart. But all is fair in love, war and presidential elections. And remember, the response is very positive on the ground.