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The offensive sexist language used by Senator David Norris against Regina Doherty TD today in the Irish Senate (referring to ‘the Regina Monologues’ and accusing her of talking ‘through her fanny’) has provoked understandable controversy. But it is not surprising to those who watch Norris closely. Brilliant and stimulating as he is, Norris is also a loose cannon with a appetite to create drama and controversy. Below is my review of his biography published last year, in which I alluded to this quality and his prickly impatience with what he see’s as cant and falseness.

David Norris  A Kick Against the Pricks : The Autobiography (Transworld Ireland)

Even by the terms of the recent political upheaval in Ireland, there was something truly extraordinary about last year’s Presidential election. From Dana’s vandalised car, to Martin McGunness’s IRA past to the final drama of Sean Gallagher being undone by a TV tweet. And there at the centre of it all was David Norris and the allegations he had to fight on the basis of a 10 year old magazine interview (and some separate legal letters) in which he speculated freely- too freely for some – on the sexual interests of a gay man.

It was an extraordinary drama which at times became pure soap opera, but perhaps this was its very appeal. At a time of economic crisis, it was a handy distraction, an enthralling personality contest which had no real consequence for the lives of ordinary people, if we accept that the Presidency is not a powerful political position but essentially a figurehead role. It may be symbolically important, but it is certainly not a position that was going to change the mess we are in. So, for this reason, the real purpose of the election was theatre and, in the end, it became a blood sport, a gladiatorial contest fought out on national radio and TV.

Forced to withdraw from the arena early, Norris knows this the most and the title of his memoir reflects his understandable bitterness at the ambushing he suffered.  But the pity about this extraordinary drama, and electoral crash, is that it obscures an even more extraordinary story which is the life, career and achievements of David Norris himself, long before he got embroiled in the Presidency.

An outspoken and eloquent Senator, a sparkling English lecturer, and a genuinely popular public who has been both, fearless and erudite – Norris has added immeasurably to our public life. But it is not just his Wildean wit. He has also tackled serious and substantive issues. A Protestant, he challenged the institutional sectarianism of our State up to the early 90’s as well as the myths of knee jerk Republicanism and tribal politics. He also, famously, campaigned bravely against the country’s discrimination of gay people, and took the State to the European Commission of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and forced it to legalise homosexuality. For this alone, he should be revered. At a time when gay culture is so mainstream, and its goals moved on, it is hard to imagine the sort of prejudice and lazy ignorance that he and others were up against.

Norris’s memoir is excellent on all of this and on other passages of his life. He gives us a complete picture, in a fluent and highly readable account. From his birth in the Belgian Congo, to his descriptions of Dublin in the dark 50s and the fledgling gay scene of the 1970’s, it is a valuable social and cultural history, all carried off with a particularly mordant Irish humour. And this is his winning formula. It shows that in Ireland, or elsewhere, if you are entertaining as well as fearless, and full of conviction, you can overcome opposition and win support. It is not despite his three piece suits, cut- glass accent and unashamedly gay persona, that Norris is popular: it is because of them. And it was an awareness of this popularity that encouraged him to go for the Presidency.

But maybe it was a step too far. His understandable impatience with the media and public hypocrisies, show that he is probably just too clever, and individualistic – and yes, just too prickly – to become a mere figurehead, cutting ribbons. And there were too many skeletons. As it happens, when I was editor of Magill, someone grubbily sent me a copy of the infamous Helen Lucy Burke interview, encouraging me to republish it. It was unsigned but I had strong suspicions about its provenance. I threw it away, but I did feel reading it that it was quite an unguarded interview and could be used against Norris if he ever went for bigger political office. And so it came to be. After the initial damage, he returned to the electoral fray but the momentum was lost and the fight gone out of him. And anyway the whole contest was beginning to resemble a daily farce.

There are no silver bullet revelations here. Norris was tricked into publicly releasing his letter to support for his ex-partner Ezra in the latter’s Israeli court case by the false claim that others had the letters, but then we probably knew that. Just as we knew that these ‘revelations’ weren’t a Zionist conspiracy!

What the book does have is anger, a lot of it. And while it may often sound righteous, much of it is valid and raises important questions, such as about the power of the media in our society, especially the tabloid media, and the dumbing down of our discourse to smart-aleck sound-bites, image, spin and catching people out, not to mention political smears and muck-raking. Norris speaks generally here and it is hard not to agree with his line about how certain broadcasters ‘who never had the critical responsibility for taking a decision frequently interrupt, heckles and even abuse Cabinet ministers.’ It is blood sport everywhere now.

In the end, he feels compensated that at least it was Michael D Higgins who became President, another brave campaigner whom he counts as a friend. He describes attending the inauguration, seated between Gerry Adams and Cardinal Sean Brady and worried he’d confuse his conversations – between ‘Armalites and Carmelites.’ The good Senator is redeemed by his bravery and wit and I’ve no doubt he would even have a quip of two if he was being led up to the scaffold. He is better off without the seven-year gagging order of the Aras.

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