05 August 2011

Double Standards

I'm still trying to get my head around the whole Norris Affair, with my main thought at the moment being that John Waters was absolutely correct when he said today that:
'Nothing in recent years has revealed the ideological corruption of the Irish media as the David Norris saga. Nothing has so dramatically laid bare the extent to which our culture has been appropriated by people for whom words, facts, circumstances are no more than the raw material for beating Irish society in a new shape of their liking.'
Of course, there's a certain irony in the fact of Waters being part of that media, but I think his point holds. Not all of the article is sound -- I think he overplays comparisons with the X Case, for instance, and I'm uneasy about his rhetoric at a couple of points -- but his central thesis is spot-on. Until last week the Irish media had, in the main, given David Norris an astonishingly soft ride. Almost the entire media was clearly divided into two uncritical camps; for some Norris was a champion of Irish liberalism such that he couldn't be seen to do any wrong, whereas for others the fear of being accused of homophobia was so paralysing that they were incapable of engaging in legitimate criticism or scrutiny.

I still haven't seen even one article trying to establish when David Norris and Ezra Nawi ended their relationship. Was it 1985, as I keep hearing and as Norris indicated in his withdrawal speech? Or was it January 2001 as he told Joe Jackson in a 2002 interview? This matters, surely, as if it was the latter date it raises serious questions about why he was in a relationship with someone he knew to have had sex with a fifteen-year-old boy.

Even now I find it hard to comprehend how the Helen Lucy Burke interview from 2002 was so gently passed over, though this baffles me less than the fact that I can't find the text of the interview online. I can find extracts, of course, and damning ones at that, but I can't find the whole text as originally published in Magill -- surely there was more to the article than a few stray quotes -- let alone the full text as originally recorded. Why hasn't any reputable media outlet sought to republish the interview, along with, say, the 2002 Sunday Independent interview with Joe Jackson in which Senator Norris sought to clarify his Magill statements? This isn't even a complaint: I'm genuinely baffled.

The Norris affair forces us, I think, to ask a very serious question, which is 'how serious are we about tackling child abuse?' One might think, with their years of fulminating against the wrongs committed by Catholic clergy, that the Irish media was passionate about fighting this national scourge, leaving aside its aversion to reporting on the overwhelming majority of sexual abuse, but the way this matter is being handled should change that. Waters concludes his piece by saying:
'Thus this saga tells us that we now reside in an Alice in Wonderland culture, where language, meaning and truth are putty in the hands of journalists. A glaring similarity between particular sets of facts no longer guarantees that similar meanings will be adduced.

Now, we must consider also how political or ideologically useful the protagonist is.

Sexual abuse is deplorable when it implicates people the media consensus disapproves of, but otherwise is a technical matter arising from the absence of enlightened legislation – resulting, one assumes, from a paucity of classically-educated legislators.

How, henceforth, can the citizen have any reasonable expectation of being told, truthfully and consistently, the facts and meanings of events? And how, in the future, is the citizen to take seriously media fulminating about child abuse, when it is clear that, when a liberal icon is implicated, commentators and editors are disposed to look the other way?'
And he wrote that, it should be pointed out, before RTE decided to interview Ezra Nawi, Norris's former lover and -- more importantly -- a man who had been imprisoned for the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old boy. Sure, the boy had consented to what was done to him, but then so too had the sixteen-year-old boy involved in the only case in the Cloyne Report to have led to a criminal conviction. I very much doubt that RTE will be interviewing Brendan Wrixon any time soon. I certainly hope it won't.

Why assume anyone has a right to stand for the Presidency?
I hope Waters is wrong, and that the mainstays of the Irish media haven't simply been using the issue of child abuse -- a blight throughout all of Irish society -- as a stick with which to beat the Catholic dog. Unfortunately, it does rather look that way, and you can see this in how even such informed people as Fintan O'Toole and Vincent Browne can argue with reasonably straight faces that despite what's been revealed, David Norris should have been allowed to stand as a candidate in the Presidential election.

This baffles me, not least because it assumes that David Norris was basically entitled to stand for the Presidency, that at least twenty members of the Oireachtas were obliged to support his candidacy rather than those of someone else they might prefer to nominate, and that there's no real reason behind why our Constitution requires prospective candidates to be nominated by our elected representatives. How is it that Jed Bartlet put it in The West Wing?
'You know, we forget sometimes. In all the talk about democracy, we forget it's not a democracy. It's a republic. People don't make the decisions. They choose the people who make the decisions. Could they do a better job choosing? Yeah, but when you consider the alternatives...'
The members of the Oireachtas, most of whom we elect, have four roles under our Constitution: they make laws, they raise and maintain our armed forces, they hold the Government to account, and they nominate candidates for the Presidency. We've actually elected them to do that. If people didn't want TDs who wouldn't support David Norris' Presidential aspirations, they shouldn't have elected them. It's very simple.

If people have a problem with that, they should be campaigning to change the Constitution. Hell, they should have been campaigning since 2004.

Superficial Comparisons...
And yet, of course, there are people screaming about being denied their democratic right to vote for David Norris, and some of them have taken to scraping some old and empty barrels to make a point. Take for example, Áine Collins, a new Fine Gael TD who has apparently drawn comparisons between Norris' letter to the Israeli High Court and a letter written in 2003 to the then governor of Florida by Fine Gael's own candidate, Gay Mitchell, asking him to commute the death sentence for a double-murderer who was due to be executed. Of course, people have been ranting about this for the last couple of days, pointing out that Mitchell, as a Catholic, is opposed to abortion and that the murderer's victims had been the doctor at an abortion clinic and his bodyguard. In linking this letter with Norris's letters, Collins said:
'We heard what David Norris had to say, he did the right thing. I think Mr Mitchell absolutely [has questions to answer] he should come out and speak about that.'
I've never been a fan of Gay Mitchell, despite having voted for him in the 2004 European election, and should I be solidly home in the autumn I've no intention of voting for him in the Presidential election, but this is utter nonsense. The two situations aren't remotely comparable, and in fact I think they differ in at least six key ways:
  • Mitchell was attempting to influence a political decision; Norris attempted to influence a judicial process.
  • Why Mitchell chose the Hill case as one to write to Governor Bush about I do not know, but it was certainly not because of any personal relationship with the criminal; Norris attempted to appeal on behalf of someone who was a current or former lover.
  • Mitchell had no relationship to conceal with Hill; Norris effectively sought to mislead the Israeli High Court by omitting the nature of his relationship with Nawi from his letter.
  • As far as we know, Mitchell in no way sought to minimise the significance of a double murder, merely arguing that the death penalty is something that merely perpetuates the cycle of violence; Norris in his letter argued that Nawi’s crime was hardly so serious as to justify a custodial sentence.
  • Mitchell asked only that a man not be executed, something that is in accord with the wishes of the Irish electorate, as expressed in a 2001 referendum, and in accord with the European Convention on Human Rights; Norris asked that a man not even be imprisoned for a crime that in Ireland would be punishable by up to five years in prison.
  • Mitchell having written his letter has been public knowledge at least since it was reported by RTE in September 2003, and since then has been twice reelected to the European Parliament by the people of Dublin, topping the poll with more than 90,000 votes on each occasion; Norris concealed the fact of his having written this letter from his Seanad and Foreign Affairs Committee colleagues, and from his tiny Trinity College electorate whose elections of him were thus carried out in ignorance.
I think the last point is the key one. The Mitchell story was dealt with by the media eight years ago, and has already been passed over -- twice -- by the Irish electorate as being of no real consequence.The Norris story, on the other hand, is new information that had been concealed for years from Norris's colleagues and electorate. It invites serious questions about his attitude to adults having sex with minors, and invites these questions at a time when -- in the aftermath of the Cloyne Report and the Taoiseach's speech on Cloyne -- we seem finally to be starting to embrace the idea that no excuses in this field can be tolerated. 

SAVI again, and the realities of abuse in Ireland
I believe that's the right attitude, because child sexual abuse is a national scourge and if the table 4.9 of the SAVI Study can be trusted, almost 18 per cent of all child sexual abuse in Ireland has involved adults abusing fifteen- and sixteen-year olds. In the context of Ireland's adult population at the time the SAVI Study was carried out, this means about 140,000 of them had been sexually abused by adults when they were in their mid-teens. Sure, they may have gone along with this, but that's kind of the point: they were too young and too inexperienced for their consent to have been in any way mature or informed.

If we believe that the Taoiseach was right to say that teenagers are children, that Ireland's children are her most prized possession, and that safeguarding their integrity and innocence must be a national priority, then this belief must have consequences. Belief in itself is worthless; it's only belief in action that means anything. As Fintan O'Toole said back in the day
'You don't need moral courage to point out the failings of the other side. You need it for your own side, for people you know and like and believe in. It's precisely when friendship and loyalty are at stake that morality is tempered in the fire.'
I'm not saying people should be shouting or pointing fingers at David Norris. I don't think anger and sloganeering are the way forward. We have a colossal national problem, and McCarthyism, tabloid witch-hunts, and political blood sports won't help us solve it. Neither, however, will shameless double standards. Abuse is endemic in Ireland, and the only way we can deal with this properly is to do so -- carefully and thoughtfully -- together. The seduction, rape, and molestation of Ireland's children should not be a political football.

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