Following on from my awkward post which looked at racism in Ireland (in an embarassed, shuffling sort of a way), I will examine yet another question of bigotry today by looking at homophobia, gay rights in Ireland, and how this will impact on David Norris's campaign to be President. More specifically, let me tell you why I won't vote for David Norris, and why if he does become President, it will represent a shallow, pyrrhic victory for Ireland's gay population.
Off the bat, let me state that I think Norris is a pretty decent guy. He believes in things. He fights for things. He stands up for things. The only problem is, he is about as out of touch with everyday life in Ireland as you can get. Born in the Belgian Congo, Norris himself now represents Trinity College Dublin (yes, that bastion of the common man) in the Senate. Norris is also a Joycean scholar of note, and every Bloomsday can be found strolling about Sandycove in a straw boater.
None of the above is typical of everyday life in Ireland. More to the point, none of the above is typical of everyday life in Ireland if you are gay. What I have learned from the handful of gay relatives, friends and colleagues that I have known well over the years is this - they are broadly just like me, only they are gay. They have the same worries about the economy, the same fears about our crappy health service, and the corruption in this country drives them as mad as I do. They grumble about taxes, they hate to see wastage of public funds, and they just want someone to provide us with some bloody leadership.
True, unlike me, they have to put up with small-minded bigots and bullies. But for the most part, unlike (with all due respect to him) Mr. Norris, they have to face these tribulations in far less supportive environments than Dublin academia. Coming out must be incredibly difficult even in relatively liberal Trinity - imagine what it must be like in rural Monaghan. That's not to suggest that rural areas are any more homophobic - but if you do face bigotry, the sparser population means your support network is smaller and more widely dispersed. A sense of isolation develops far more easily.
So the fact is that Mr. Norris neither reflects the views of the wider population nor, I feel, the typical experience of a gay person in Ireland. Is he committed? Undoubtedly. Does he have strong morals, a strident voice, and the desire to work for what he believes - quite certainly. But at a time when there is widespread feeling among the Irish population as a whole that politics and the institutions of the State are out of touch, Mr. Norris would only reinforce these views. He has never worked in business, never worked for "the man", and his experience outside the Seanad is limited to Trinity. He is, in the nicest possible way, one of the elite - but more importantly, he cannot bridge the gap between the elite and the ordinary fella (i.e. me).
What's more, Norris should not want to be President - he can achieve much more outside the Aras than within. Part of the job description of President is to, basically, keep your mouth shut. You are a figurehead, and hence can't really stand up for what you believe. In a recent interview with Ivan Yates on Newstalk, Norris couldn't promise that as President he would stay silent if something cropped up that he didn't agree with. What if there is another NAMA, or if Mr. Norris disagrees with social welfare cuts, or refuses to meet his opposite number from China/Iran/Turkey because of concerns over human rights? He may be right in all these circumstances not to hold his tongue - but that's an argument for a reform of our political structures, to produce a more active President, and not why he should run now.
Which is preciselt why Norris should continue fighting for what he believes in via the Seanad, and should not hamstring himself by running for the Aras. In the Seanad he can address every issue that is dear to him, from questions of social justice to the demand for greater respect for human rights. What's more, President Norris would not really represent the triumph of the gay community over bigotry, nor could he speak to the nation as a whole on the issues arising from our descent into economic chaos. Worst of all, he would be prevented from standing up for what he believes in. And while I don't always agree with him, his is a voice I would not like to see silenced.