David Norris (politician)

David Norris (politician)
David Norris
Assumed office
25 April 1987
Constituency University of Dublin
Personal details
Born 1 July 1944 (1944-07-01) (age 67)
Léopoldville, Belgian Congo
(now Kinshasa, Congo-Kinshasa)
Political party Independent
Alma mater Trinity College, Dublin
Religion Church of Ireland
Website www.senatordavidnorris.ie

David Patrick Bernard Norris (born 1 July 1944) is an Irish scholar, independent Senator, and gay and civil rights activist.[1][2][3] Internationally, Norris is credited with having "managed, almost single-handedly, to overthrow the anti-homosexuality law which brought about the downfall of Oscar Wilde", a feat he achieved in 1988 after a fourteen year campaign.[4] He has also been credited with being "almost single-handedly responsible for rehabilitating James Joyce in once disapproving Irish eyes".[5]

Norris is a former university lecturer and a member of the Oireachtas, serving in Seanad Éireann since 1987.[6] He was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in Ireland.[7] Founder of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, he is also a prominent member of the Church of Ireland.

He was a candidate for President of Ireland in the October 2011 election. He topped numerous opinion polls and was favourite among members of the Irish public for the position but withdrew from the race months before the election,[8][9][10] before returning to the race in September 2011.[11][12]


Early and personal life

David Norris was born in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo, now known as Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where his father (John Norris) worked as chief engineer for Lever Brothers.[13] John Norris served in the British Armed Forces during World War I and World War II; he died while Norris was still a child. David Norris was then sent to Ireland to be cared for by his mother, Aida Fitzpatrick, and her extended family.[13]

...while, on hearing his dad had died, he "had to squeeze out tears" because they were never that close, the death of his mother, was "totally heartbreaking".

"It destroyed my sense of reality," he adds, now. "This was somebody I loved who was there one minute, then the next minute she was gone."[14]

After first meeting in 1975, Norris was in a long-term relationship with Israeli activist Ezra Nawi for a number of years until 1985.[15] They continued a platonic friendship after that. In a Today FM interview with Matt Cooper in Summer 2011 Norris said (paraphrasing[who?]) "nowadays people think of a romantic relationship as a sexual one and Ezra and myself have not had that kind of relationship since the 1980s."

Education and academic career

Norris attended school at St. Andrew's College and The High School. He then entered Trinity College, the University of Dublin, to read for the degree of B.A. in English Literature and Language, where he was elected a Foundation Scholar in that subject before achieving a 1st Class Moderatorship and editing Icarus, the University literary magazine. He remained at Trinity as a lecturer and college tutor between 1968 and 1996.[16] His love of Joyce is borne out in Dublin's annual Bloomsday celebrations.[17] He defended Ulysses when Roddy Doyle said it was "overlong, overrated and unmoving", calling Doyle a "foolish" and "moderate talent".[5] He is an Irish language speaker. He is also a Hebrew language speaker.[18][19]

After contracting the waterborne variation of Hepatitis while visiting Central Europe in 1994, Norris received disability payments from a private income continuance insurer worth thousands of euro over 16 years.[20] Trinity College paid for this, and not the State.[21][22] Norris left his role as a lecturer after Trinity College authorities said the situation arising from his illness was "untenable", although he remained an elected senator.[20] Norris was hospitalised and was seriously ill for a time as a result of the condition.[20] He has rarely drunk alcohol since the diagnosis.[21]

Campaigning and activism

Norris took the Attorney General to the High Court over the criminalisation of homosexual acts. His claim was based on the fact that the law infringed on his right to privacy and that since the introduction of the Constitution of Ireland the law passed under British rule became repugnant to the constitution. The High Court ruled against Norris. He appealed his case to the Supreme Court of Ireland.[23] In 1983, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the law by a three to two verdict.[23][24]

Having lost the Supreme Court case, Norris took his case to the European Court of Human Rights (See Norris v. Ireland). In 1988, the European Court ruled that the law criminalising same sex activities was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular Article 8 which protects the right to respect for private life. The law was held to infringe on the right of adults to engage in acts of their own choice.[25]

The first and immediate thing about the European decision is the enlargement of dignity and freedom for gay people – but I think a decision like this enhances the dignity and freedom of all the people of Ireland because it pushes us towards a more tolerant and plural society.

– Norris's reaction to the European ruling, 1988.[4]

This law was repealed in 1993.

Norris has since then expanded his activism to a concept of "universal rights".

I did start out on that campaign [for homosexual law reform] but I found very quickly that the mechanism of discrimination was exactly the same against women, against ethnic minorities, against the handicapped, so I broadened out and this now is how I see things, very much so.[14]

Political career

Norris represents the University of Dublin constituency in the Seanad as an Independent. He was first elected to the Seanad in 1987, and has been re-elected at each election since.[26][27]

2011 presidential campaign


In March 2011, Norris announced his intention to run in the 2011 Irish presidential election.[28] Facebook support for a presidential bid drew comparisons with Barack Obama's campaign for the American presidency.[29] Norris topped multiple opinion polls as the person most Irish people would like to see as their next president (with the caveat that these polls have been taken before all candidates have declared).[8][10][30][31][32][33][34] Internal research by Fine Gael also placed Norris ahead of all other potential candidates.[35]

On 14 March 2011, Norris launched his campaign to secure a nomination.[36] On 9 May 2011, he was nominated by Fingal County Council.[37] By the end of that month, he had secured the support of 6 TDs.[38] Fine Gael ordered its councillors to block Norris's nomination.[39] In late May, controversial comments Norris allegedly made in 2002 were raised on a talk radio show. Norris called this an attempt to "sabotage" his campaign. He said the quotes had been taken out of context.[40]

Norris's candidacy was endorsed by British actor and writer Stephen Fry, who said Ireland "couldn't have a more intelligent passionate and knowledgeable witty or committed President".[41]

In late July, it was revealed that Norris had written a letter in 1992 (29 August 1992) to an Israeli court asking clemency for his former partner Ezra Nawi, who had been convicted of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy in 1992 but was awaiting sentencing. Norris's letter, written on parliamentary notepaper, said that Nawi had been lured into a "carefully prepared trap" and had unwisely pleaded guilty to the charges. The story was publicised by a pro-Israel blogger John Connolly. Connolly stated that he had received a tip from "someone in the trade union movement".[42] A number of people resigned from Norris's campaign team. While Norris himself said he remained committed to his campaign, he admitted that it was now "in serious trouble".[43] It was claimed by some that these allegations, complete with Norris's subsequent defence of his comments on pederasty in ancient Greece would seriously damage his chances of securing a nomination.[44][45] Norris refuted this, saying he still expected to receive a nomination,[46] and the controversy did not affect his poll standings.[31]


As of 22 July, Norris had secured the support of 15 of the 20 members of the Oireachtas required for a nomination.[47] On 1 August, the Independent TDs John Halligan, Finian McGrath and Thomas Pringle announced that they were withdrawing their support for Norris over the revelations of the Nawi plea.[48][49] However, several other TDs re-iterated their support for Norris in his bid to become President. Maureen O'Sullivan, TD referred to a "nasty campaign" when expressing her continued support for Norris.[50] Wicklow TD Stephen Donnelly said he believed it was wrong for Norris to have used Oireachtas headed notepaper, while Mick Wallace, TD said he believed Norris should not have sent the plea. Both Donnelly and Wallace also reaffirmed their support for Norris.[51] Norris expressed his desire to continue his campaign for President.[43] However, on 2 August, Norris announced at a press conference held at his home that he was withdrawing from the presidential race.[52][53][54][55]


“I’m not perfect and I’m not pretending to be perfect. If you’re waiting for a perfect president, you’ll be waiting a long time ... I abhor abuse of children ... This would be the biggest comeback in Irish political history. I think people love a comeback.”

David Norris confirmed his re-entry into the presidential race on a late-night appearance on The Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy on 16 September 2011.[56]

Despite withdrawing from the presidential race in July 2011, Norris maintained considerable and, in some cases, increased public support. A poll taken one week after Norris withdrew from the presidential race, showed a large increase in public support for his Presidency if they were given the choice to vote for him (topping the poll by a considerable margin) with 40 per cent of respondents now saying they would vote Norris number one in the proportional representation electorial system and 50 per cent saying they would give him a vote.[57]

In Galway city alone, more than 1,000 signatures in support of Norris for President were gathered from members of the public in just 12 hours on the weekend of 11 September.[58] There was a similar result in the city of Cork.[59] Days later, Norris was presented with a petition of 10,000 signatures, collected nationwide, by the We Want Norris campaign outside Leinster House.[60] As a result Norris announced his return to the campaign on the Irish television talk programme The Late Late Show on Friday 16 September 2011, though he did not reveal the precise number of signatures belonging to TDs and Senators that he had secured.[61] A Sunday Independent/Millward Brown Lansdowne opinion poll published on 18 September showed a high amount of popular support for Senator David Norris of 34 per cent.[62]

Despite attempts, Norris didn't receive sufficient support from Oireachtas members to gain a nomination, having been nominated by 18 members, two short of the minimum number of 20. However, he received a nomination from four county councils (Fingal, Laois, Waterford and Dublin City), which is sufficient to gain a nomination.[63][64][65] He was assisted by his rival, Labour Party candidate Michael D. Higgins, who urged his party colleagues on Dublin City Council to allow Norris onto the ticket "in the interests of democracy."[66] When Norris heard this on the radio he instructed his driver to stop the car so that he could phone Higgins to express his appreciation.[67]

According to The Irish Times Norris had four times as many followers on Twitter as any of the other candidates as of 30 September.[68]

In the first debate, held on RTÉ Radio 1's News at One, Norris promised the electorate he would have no difficulty in either visiting Israel or in meeting Pope Benedict XVI as President of Ireland.[69] Speaking after the disclosure of various fees received by his rivals Mary Davis and Seán Gallagher after they were appointed to State and commercial boards, Norris confirmed he had no stocks or shares to his name and that he was not a company director.[70] Norris launched his campaign at Dublin Writers Museum on 5 October 2011.[71]

He came fifth in the election receiving 109,469 (6.2%) first preference votes.


On his website Norris lists his concerns as "Human Rights Issues, Foreign Policy, Immigration/Asylum, European Union, Luas/Metro".[72]

Currently an owner-occupier in North Great George's Street in Dublin,[73] he is a member of the Irish Georgian Society and is an active campaigner for the preservation of Georgian buildings in the Republic of Ireland.[13] He has spent many of his own earnings on restoring his own home “room by room”.[74] He has campaigned for the transfer of the Abbey Theatre (National Theatre of Ireland) to the GPO in the centre of O'Connell Street.[75] Norris is also a well-known Joycean scholar, and plays a large part in Dublin's annual Bloomsday celebrations.[13]

Norris is a Christian and regularly attends Church of Ireland services. He said the following of his religious beliefs:

I am the kind of Christian who believes that the most important theological principle is the principle of positive doubt. Even Christ doubted, on the cross. And I think if people say they hear the voice of God all the time and say they know what to do, then impose that on you, politically, it is theological tyranny. Whereas if you have doubt, it stops you from abusing your religious belief. Religion can be so abused in the interests of power, especially on behalf of institutions and governments.[14]

Norris believes himself to be an "outsider" of "accepted society" and claims this gives him a heightened awareness of other minority or "outsider" groups. He says he wishes society to become more accepting of diversity. He has campaigned on mental health and child abuse issues.[14][76]

When questioned on drug legalisation he said:

The blunt instrument of criminalisation is not working because of the vast profits it generates for organised crime ... my view is that the welfare of the community, including the victims of drug abuse, may be better served by having access to quality controlled, legally prescribed drugs.[77][78]


Fairytale of Kathmandu

On 11 March 2008, Norris called for the broadcast of the documentary Fairytale of Kathmandu (scheduled to be shown that evening on RTÉ) to be postponed. The film documented visits to Nepal by Irish poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, during which he had sex with young boys. It questioned whether he was sexually exploiting the boys or engaging in child sex tourism. Norris criticized that the film had been leaked beforehand and that Ó Searcaigh had been treated harshly by the media before its broadcast. He announced to the Seanad that the film should be checked for factuality, because he claimed that "public money" had been spent on it. The issue was conveyed to Deputy John Cregan, the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources.[79]

Easter Rising comments

An article in The Sunday Times claimed that Norris had, on more than one occasion, denounced the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising as "terrorists".[13] In May 2011, Norris denied that article's claim also, saying "That's not true, it's a slur, and it's not fair on me. Terrorists are people who use civilian casualties to advance a political end. The men of 1916 produced the proclamation, addressed equally – in an age when women didn't have the vote - to 'Irishmen and Irishwomen', that's wonderful!".[80] The newspaper printed a retraction.

Criticism of Pope John Paul II

Norris has made statements about Catholic social teaching on homosexuality, particularly in relation to the Papacy. He criticised Pope John Paul II for attacking homosexuality because the pope's hostile remarks led to anti-gay violence, saying that the pope was an "instrument for evil as far as I'm concerned because these constant, unremitting, ignorant, ill-informed attacks on the gay community have led to violence against the gay community". Norris also described the pope's position as "calculated and deliberate wickedness" because he "closes down scholarly enquiry" and because he "marginalised all the wonderful people like Oscar Romero, Leonardo Boff, Hans Kung, Charles Curran, all these marvellous people who are the future and the hope of the Church and, instead, put into place these mindless bureaucrats, which is intensely sad."[81] Commenting on then Cardinal Ratzinger, he said, "Ratzinger, who is, in his mind-set, a Nazi" because he is "afraid to tell the truth," and because he and John Paul II "won't even let themselves be in the presence of the truth, because it would shatter their very stylised view of things."[81] He later stated that he regretted using the term "Nazi" in reference to Ratzinger.[82]

2002 Magill magazine interview

In a January 2002 interview for politics/current affairs magazine Magill, Norris discussed the age of consent, incest, pedophilia and pederasty.[83] The interviewer, restaurant critic Helen Lucy Burke, said, "I found some of his views on sexual matters deeply disturbing - notably on sex with minors".[84] According to Burke, Norris didn't seem to support a minimum age of consent. When asked "Where would you draw the line?" Norris replied, "I would hope we could produce a society where people would be inclined to draw lines for themselves".[85] On 30 May 2011, Burke was a guest on the talk radio show Liveline. Burke said that she had read the article to Norris before publication, and that he had wholeheartedly endorsed what was written. During the show, it was noted that the Magill article had been reported in a newspaper shortly after publication. The newspaper, Ireland on Sunday, went with the headline "Senator Backs Sex With Children". Burke claimed that, when Norris saw the reaction to the interview, he "back-tracked" and denied saying what had been quoted. She also called Norris' views "evil" and "against the law".[86]

According to Norris, he was only read two paragraphs of the interview before publication, and he asked for corrections to be made to those paragraphs, and these corrections were not made.[87] In a May 2011 statement on his Presidential campaign website, Norris affirmed "I did not ever and would not approve of the finished article as it appeared". Norris asserts that he and Burke engaged in an "academic discussion about Classical Greece and sexual activity in a historical context; it was a hypothetical, intellectual conversation" and that the "presentation of references to sexuality in the article attributed to me were misleading in that they do not convey the context in which they were made".[88] Norris also spoke about the Magill profile in an interview with Joe Jackson for the Sunday Independent, in which he refutes the allegations, saying he responded in "horror", and that “it so completely misrepresents everything I said. In the interview I said I cannot understand how anyone would consider it appropriate to have sex with children".[89]

The interview was recorded and on 21 October 2011 it was played on the radio talk show Liveline.[85]


  • Council of Europe Travelling Scholarship
  • Walter Wormser Harris Prize
  • Foundation Scholarship in English Literature and Language
  • European Human Rights Prize (nomination)[90]


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