01 August 2011

David Norris, or Ireland in the Looking Glass

As it seems most people reading the blog nowadays are coming here in connection with what I've written on Cloyne, I've decided to give my Cloyne pieces their own label -- at seven so far, and this being an eighth one, I think that makes sense.

Obviously, the big news at home is the effective collapse of David Norris's campaign for the Presidency. Despite where the increasingly-polarised nature of Ireland's internal conversation nowadays, I really don't think anybody should be celebrating this, not least because an awful lot of people had invested an awful lot of hope in his candidacy, and hope is something Ireland really needs at the moment. For all that, though, I think it's worth thinking about -- carefully, honestly, and charitably -- if we are serious about holding up a mirror to ourselves as a nation, which is something I firmly believe we need to do.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not going to pretend that I've ever liked Norris, or that I planned on voting for him, or that I thought he'd be a fine President. While I admired his courage in fighting for the decriminalisation of homosexuality back in the day, I've mainly just found him annoying, and have been invariably exasperated whenever he's been on any panel discussions on the telly, interrupting everyone else and braying loudly so nobody else could be heard. To be fair, these public-house antics are all too common on Irish television, but Norris has always struck me as one of the worst offenders. At home earlier in the year, the Brother pointed out that if I really felt that way I should probably be campaigning for Norris, as President Norris would probably be far less prominent a presence on the television than Senator Norris has been, and I had to concede he had a point. And I've said this before.

An Imploding Campaign
So what's happened? Well, as we all know, a couple of months ago a story broke about how there'd been a Magill article back in 2002 in which Senator Norris, in the course of being interviewed by the restaurant critic Helen Lucy Burke, warbled at great length about the practice of pederasty in ancient Greece, saying that there was a lot of nonsense talked about paedophilia, that the key issue was consent and not age, and that there was something to be said for the practice of older men introducing male youths to 'sexual realities'; he mused that he might have relished the prospect of such an initiation in his youth.

The surfacing of this old article set off a storm of protest, with people inferring that this was an attempt to smear the Senator through an unvoiced insinuation that gay people pose a threat to the young. Norris himself insisted that the quotes had been taken out of context -- which is always a problem -- and that he was being misrepresented with his campaign being deliberately sabotaged, but John Waters, who'd been Magill's Consulting Editor in 2002 held that he'd given Norris every opportunity at the time to clarify or retract his statements before they went to print.

Well, the story lapsed, but then over the weekend the Norris campaign basically fell apart with several key staff resigning, all in connection with the emergence of two letters, written in January and August 1997, pleading that the Israeli High Court should have mercy on Ezra Yizhak Nawi, a friend and former partner of his, who'd been convicted -- having pleaded guilty -- of having had sex in 1992 with a 15-year-old boy. One of the letters was written on official Seanad paper, and both were written in Norris' capacity as a Senator and a member of the Irish Foreign Affairs Committee. The story seems to have been sparked by a blogger who'd pulled together various bits and bobs from the internet, doing the kind of work Irish journalists probably should have been doing all along. Because whatever about that blogger's agenda, this stuff does matter: the President is our first citizen, and should be someone in whose judgement and character we have confidence.

A Question of Motive
I really don't know how this is going to play out, save that his Presidential campaign, no matter what he may think, is surely dead in the water. I listened yesterday to an interesting discussion on the topic on the radio, and though I agreed almost entirely with John Waters, I took issue with one thing he said. Waters made the point that the Burke interview took place five years after the Yizhak trial, and that he believed that Norris was trying to prepare the ground for when the story eventually broke. I don't believe that. I can think of three ways of explaining why Norris said what he did, and Waters' explanation strikes me as the least credible.

The first is that Norris may actually have believed what he said, and that this was why he was so willing to defend his friend, despite knowing that his friend had indeed admitted the statutory rape of a teenage boy. Norris may well have written his letters in the sincere belief that the boy's consent mattered more than his youth. I don't think David Norris is a devious man. This strikes me as plausible.

The second is that Norris may have defended his friend without full comprehension of what his friend had done, and had then rationalised away his friend's actions and his own support of him by convincing himself that what had happened was not merely harmless, but the sort of the thing that might even have been beneficial to the youth. That he thought this way strikes me as at least equally plausible, given that people have an extraordinary capacity to lie to themselves. I'll always remember an old psychology lecturer of mine saying that 'Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalising one.' 

I don't believe Norris was cynically plotting a 2004 or 2011 election campaign back in 2002 -- though he does allude to his possible future candidacy in the longer letter -- such that he was trying to change the attitudes of the country so that nobody would bat an eyelid when they found how he'd begged the Israeli High Court to show leniency to a man who'd pleaded guilty to something that any Irish court would have recognised as statutory rape. That'd have been an absurd ambition, and one characterised by a cynicism that I've never heard anyone ascribe to the man. No, I don't think he was trying to convince the country. He may have been trying to convince himself.

What's that got to do with the price of (loaves and) fish?
So, what does all this have to do with us as a nation, and Cloyne as a recent phenomenon? There's no way that these developments can be discussed other than in the context of the last two weeks of heated debate, and it is striking that today's edition of the Irish Times is the first edition of the paper in some time not even to feature the word 'Cloyne', although the revelations of the Cloyne Report are clearly the subject, in part, of Archbishop Neary's Reek Sunday homily.

It's worth looking at the main letter in depth. Take, for example, this passage, wrapping things up:
'Tenthly non custodial sentences are routinely considered where the offender seeks treatment or counselling. In this case Mr Yizhak has been under the care of a psychotherapist and wishes to continue with this treatment. [...] Secure in the knowledge that Mr. Yizhak will not offend again in the same way, that he is prepared to make financial compensation available to the young man involved, that lasting and perhaps permanent damage will be done to his psychological and material welfare by being imprisoned, by view of the fact that there is a possibility that he may attempt suicide in prison, [...] I earnestly beg that the court may see the possibility of securing justice not by sending him to prison but by imposing a non-custodial sentence.'
I don't see how Senator Norris could have been 'secure in the knowledge' that his former partner would not offend again the same way, but I think what's clear here is that Norris is determined to make the case that his friend is no longer a danger to anyone, is actively try to best his worse nature, will attempt to remedy whatever harm he's done, and that no good could be achieved through his imprisonment.

Now, we all know that the political career of, say, Ronan Mullen would be finished if he had written such a letter in defence of, say, Brendan Wrixon, the 'Father Caden' of the Cloyne Report and the only priest featured in that Report to have been been convicted in the courts of the land. There'd certainly not be a discussion of whether it was still plausible for him to continue in his Presidential campaign, were he engaged in such a thing. That'd be the end of him. And indeed, I think that would be absolutely right and proper. Frankly, I believe that what David Norris did was wrong, and I believe that he should end his Presidential campaign now, and should give serious thought to resigning his seat in the Seanad.

'We Must Love One Another Or Die'
However, I really don't think people should be screaming to demand this. Those in Ireland who've spoken out in recent weeks against the Government's blustering attacks on the Vatican have received vicious personal abuse for pointing out that while anger at the revelations in the Cloyne Report is fully justified, anger at the wrong people and the wrong institutions was not. The last couple of weeks have seen too much heat in this debate, and not nearly enough light.

Some good may yet come of the Norris affair. One thing that should be clear is that David Norris, in begging a foreign court to have mercy on his friend, was motivated not by a callous contempt for Ezra Yizhak Nawi's adolescent victim, but by love for his friend, respect for the good his friend had done and was capable of, hope that his friend could change, trust that the help his friend was receiving could heal him, and concern that a prison sentence might destroy someone who regarded as basically being a good man.

It's easy to sneer at the naivety and misdirected kindness of David Norris, just as it is that of Denis O'Callaghan, but I think Ireland's not short of people who would take their approach, put in their situations.

Vincent Browne argued in the Irish Times back in April 2008 that there are 'literally hundreds of thousands of paedophiles at loose' in Ireland, and though I suspect his figures are overstated, I think he approaches an important point. If it's true, as has been reported, that one third of all child sex abuse in Ireland has been committed by adolescents, with almost all sexual abuse that's reported nowadays having been committed by family members or friends, then we start to get at part of the problem. In June 2006 a group of NGOs dealing with child sex abuse claimed that fewer than three in every thousand cases of sexual abuse in Ireland ever lead to a criminal prosecution. The fact is that most Irish abuse survivors either never tell anybody what happened to them, or only ever tell family or friends. They don't want to take their siblings or cousins or parents to court. They don't want to take the husbands or wives or parents or children of family friends to court. They try to deal with it themselves and to keep things behind closed doors. They try to avoid hurting people they love.

Irish society does its damnedest to cover up the scourge of abuse in our country, but in most cases, I don't think it does this through malice or a cynical desire for self-preservation. I think that most people, on hearing of abuse -- especially abuse that happened long ago -- hope the problems have already been sorted out or will be sorted out, continue to trust people they've always trust, and hope that harm can be undone, sickness can be healed, and wickedness can be reformed. But of course, when we're wrong we allow abusers to continue in their wickedness, and doing so we allow them to continue ruining lives. 

Mercy, hope, forgiveness, and love -- the very best qualities we have -- can actually facilitate further harm.

There's no point shouting about this, let alone gloating. We need to tread very carefully. Our country has been broken for a long time, and we need to face the truth of this, and then start trying to figure out how we can tackle it. Anger won't heal us.

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