Norris acted wrongly but should not be scapegoat

 

THERE IS a simple principle to be applied to the case of David Norris’s pleas on behalf of a man convicted of having sex with a 15-year-old boy.

He should be treated exactly like any other politician caught doing the same thing. He should not be given a free pass because of his immense contribution to the cause of equality and decency in this society. Neither should his actions be used to vent the closet homophobia that lies behind so much of the antipathy to him. Let’s try, rather, to be dispassionate and morally consistent.

Let’s start with the obvious. Politicians should not be trying to influence sentences for those convicted of serious crimes. Full stop. No qualifications, no excuses. (Sexual crimes obviously have a particular emotional resonance, but the principle should be no different for any serious offence.) David Norris used his position as a member of the Oireachtas to try to influence a court.

His first letter was on Seanad notepaper and signed in his capacity as a member of the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs. His second, longer letter made extensive reference to his public positions and even to the possibility of him running for the presidency.

This is inexcusable. It is quite understandable (even admirable) at a human level that he would have wished to make a plea for mercy for someone he loved. But to do so in an official capacity is an abuse of public office. Public representatives must know how to distinguish the personal from the official. If he is ever to be president, David Norris has a big job to do in convincing the Irish people that he fully understands that distinction.

Given that Norris was completely wrong in this case, what are the consequences of treating him exactly the same as anyone else in his position? Let’s look at the precedents.

My educated guess – based on the exceptional cases that have been exposed – is that, since 1997 when Norris wrote the Israeli letters, hundreds of similar letters have been written to Irish courts by other members of the Oireachtas.

In 2002, when it emerged that the then junior minister Bobby Molloy had intervened in a much more serious way on behalf of a child rapist, Patrick Naughton, the then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, defended him on the basis that “that’s what politicians do. A Teachta Dála is a public representative and you make representations.” There is nothing to suggest that Ahern was wrong about this. In relation to child rape alone, we know of three specific cases of TDs making pleas on their behalf. In 2007, it emerged that Fianna Fáil TD Tony Killeen had twice written to the minister for justice seeking early release for a heinous double rapist, Joseph Nugent. Fine Gael’s Pat Breen went so far as to put down a parliamentary question about when Nugent would be released. The Cork Labour TD Kathleen Lynch wrote a letter to a judge in 2008 to tell him that a convicted rapist of two children came from “a good family”.

What happened when these interventions came to public attention? Molloy eventually resigned – but that was because his office had gone even further and tried to contact the judge directly. The other three subsequently gained political promotion: Killeen to the cabinet as minister for defence; Breen to the chairmanship of the Oireachtas committee on foreign affairs; and Lynch to a junior ministry with responsibility for disability and older people. It is absolutely clear that the existing standard in Ireland is that making representations on behalf of a child rapist does not debar you from public office.

So, is Norris’s offence worse than these others? Hardly. It relates to a crime that, while utterly inexcusable, is less violent and brutal than the others. And, on a human level, it is considerably less cynical. Killeen, Lynch and Breen made their interventions purely as part of the demented system of clientelism. They did it to get votes. Norris did it out of a misguided sense of loyalty to someone who had been the love of his life.

It is also relevant that a plea to a foreign court was much less likely to result in improper influence than an intervention by a TD in Ireland’s intimate nexus of local and political connections.

So, we come to the key question: should David Norris be the one who takes the hit so that this kind of abuse is ended once and for all?

There is certainly a case to be made that he should be – sometimes, a high-profile casualty is needed to scare other politicians into righteousness. But isn’t it just a bit too convenient for our system that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour TDs should get away with it while the Independent gets hammered? And shouldn’t we feel uneasy at the notion that the gay man whose own sexuality was criminalised for so long is held to a higher standard than straight politicians?

David Norris has a lot of explaining to do, but he should be allowed to do it in a free electoral debate.

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