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Fergus Finlay: David Norris exits the political stage with the respect of every one of us



Some years ago, back when I worked in Barnardos, my colleague Meriel Reeves told me that David Norris had asked her for a favour (I think they had a personal connection). He was distraught, he said, because his barber had just retired. That good man had apparently managed David’s beard for years and kept it just the way he liked it.

Thinking about how to manage this crisis, David came to the conclusion that one of the other people whose beard (at least on a good day) had the look and shape he was after, was me. So Meriel was tasked with finding out discreetly who my barber was, and if my barber would be available for a referral.

Sadly I had to reveal that when my beard is at its best, it is because my lady wife, who is an accomplished artist in all things, has, so to speak, taken it in hand. When my beard is a mess, it is because she is busy with other things, or because I am too impatient to give her the time that all great art (and artifice) needs.

I did ask my wife if she might consider also taking David Norris’s beard in hand. She declined. (I think she might have mentioned something about one big baby being enough to manage.) I never found out how David coped. But from that day to this he has always had a wonderfully shaped and groomed beard.

I didn’t mean to start this piece with an anecdote. I started because I was shocked that David Norris has decided to retire. Yeah sure, he’s 79, but he’s one of those people you expect to keep going till they drop.

I’ve known my fair share of great men and women. I’ve known even more good and decent men and women. That’s not always the same thing. It is possible to be great without being particularly nice.

Senator David Norris at the unveiling of a portrait of himself by the artist Will Nathans at Leinster House in Dublin. 

David is, and always has been, both. He’s done huge things for other people, and endless little kindnesses as well. Everyone who has ever worked in the community and voluntary sector in Ireland, especially in fields that involve vulnerable people, will know that David Norris will never turn down a request. He’ll turn up to support ideas, to raise funds, to thank donors, to entertain a crowd. And he’ll always do it with a smile. And a bottomless supply of charm.

I have no idea where that came from. David Norris should have spent most of his time in the shadows. Gay people of his age have spent the great majority of their lives living in a country that despised them and oppressed them. Ireland wanted people like David to live in shame.

Instead, of course, he campaigned to change the law. He failed, and failed again in the Irish Courts. He stood in front of then Chief Justice Tom O’Higgins and argued that his constitutional right to privacy must protect him against being criminalised for entirely consensual homosexual acts.

O’Higgins said “on the grounds of the Christian nature of our State and on the grounds that the deliberate practice of homosexuality is morally wrong, that it is damaging to the health, both of individuals and the public and, finally, that it is potentially harmful to the institution of marriage,” the criminal sanctions against homosexuality were entirely consistent with the Constitution.

That was 1983. I worked for Garret Fitzgerald’s government back then. It might be remembered now as a more enlightened time — Garret, after all, was starting something he called a constitutional crusade. But that Supreme Court ruling was only one of several dark things that remind us that it was still a dark age.

Senator David Norris at his home in Dublin. 
Senator David Norris at his home in Dublin. 

The decade after that was the real period of change, a time when Ireland was shaken out of its complacency. And no one shook the country more than David Norris. His victory in Europe four years later was a signal step on the road to a more open country.

It took huge courage, all that. Not only would he have been utterly bankrupted if he had lost, but he came out, in every sense. As a gay man who wanted to live his own life, and as a campaigner and advocate for oppressed people everywhere. Instead of living a cossetted academic life, he took personal risks in the cause of change.

When he and the National Gay Federation started the Hirschfield Centre in Dublin in 1979, it was to provide a focal point for gay men and women who had, literally, nowhere to go. He named it after a German Jewish advocate for the rights of gay people who had been persecuted and driven out of Germany by the Nazis. So it wasn’t just a place for people to meet, it was its own statement of defiance.

 David Norris at Leinster House, Dublin.
David Norris at Leinster House, Dublin.

I’ve always sort of assumed that David Norris was always in the Oireachtas. But actually he was first elected to the Senate — the first openly gay member of the Oireachtas in our history — in 1987, and I think he has been re-elected nine times since. Everyone says there’s no such thing as a safe seat in Irish politics. With the single exception of the one that belongs to David Norris. He is now, I think, the longest-serving senator we’ve ever had.

That has only happened because he has always commanded not just enormous affection, but huge respect. Of course, he is universally known as a campaigner for gay rights, but he has thrown himself wholeheartedly into every human rights campaign that has been fought in the country in the last twenty years.

I think his empathy, his energy, and his sense of fun would have made him a great president, especially during the covid years, when we could all have used David’s wit and good humour on Zoom screens throughout the country. Imagine a group of tired nurses and medical staff in a hospital canteen having a chat over Zoom with the country’s president, and being made to feel even more worthwhile by his warm approval? President Norris would have been great at that sort of thing.

But you can’t be a great president unless you’re a good candidate, and unless you’re getting support from people who know what they’re doing. David never made it because he became the prisoner of some really ill-judged things he had said earlier about pederasty. And then, instead of acknowledging the lack of judgment, stupidly he tried to defend them on abstruse philosophical grounds. Everyone who knows David Norris knows that he hasn’t an abusive bone in his body, but he managed to tie himself up in the sort of knots that made him seem too weird for the Park. And some of the very people who promoted him for the job were the first to walk away from him when the going got rough.

So now he is, by his own account, ready to pass on the baton. All political careers end in failure, it is said. But David Norris leaves the political stage with his head held high, and with I believe the undiluted respect of every one of us. And hopefully with many more adventures ahead.

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