The Ireland I grew up in was a repressive place. Some of the best friends of my adolescence were gay but they could not tell anyone. It wasn’t until they were in their 20s or 30s that they finally had the confidence to come out.
The country’s ban on homosexual relations was overturned primarily because of one man: David Norris. Throughout the 1980s, he fought a long battle in the Irish courts. He didn’t win, so he took his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where he did. Eventually, gay relations were decriminalized. That was in 1993, a mere 18 years ago.
Today, David Norris is a candidate for the post of Ireland’s president. As an emigrant, I don’t have a vote in the election scheduled for next month. If I did, I would cast it for him.
Norris has tirelessly championed human rights at home and abroad. Together with a retired bus driver Tom Hyland, he made the situation in East Timor a priority issue for Irish foreign policy in the 1990s. And while the Dublin government accommodated the invasion of Iraq by allowing Shannon Airport become a de facto US military base, Norris called for George W Bush and Dick Cheney to be tried for war crimes.
Palestine solidarity lands him in trouble
Yet it is his support for the Palestinians that has landed Norris in the most trouble.
As I wrote last month, Norris withdrew from the presidential race because of a smear campaign undertaken by Zionist blogger John Connolly. (Happily, Norris has now returned to the contest and has been formally nominated as a candidate).
Connolly drew attention to how Norris had written to an Israeli court in 1997 urging it to be lenient towards his former partner Ezra Nawi, who was convicted of having sex with a minor. By Norris’s own admission, it was an error of judgment for him to make the appeal. But there is a huge difference between requesting leniency for an offender and approving of an offense. In this case, all Norris did was say that his friend was an otherwise decent man, who would be unlikely to ever commit such an offense again.
Although I have met Norris a few times, I don’t know Nawi. But I understand that he is well-respected among Palestine solidarity activists. A plumber by profession, Nawi has spent many years rebuilding Palestinian houses that have been destroyed by the Israeli military. In October 2009, he was sentenced to a month in a jail for obstructing an Israeli bulldozer that was being used to demolish Bedouin homes in the South Hebron area. Norris has been hugely supportive of his ex-partner’s political work by, among other things, raising funds for it.
John Connolly has written that his knowledge of Nawi is mostly based on conversations he had with “the Jewish community of Judah and Shomron, who have fought with Nawi for many years.” Judah and Shomron – or Judea and Samaria – is a name Zionists give to the West Bank. The “community” referred to here is comprised of illegal settlers.
Nawi has been punished for his past misdemeanor. Yet the settlers who keep Connolly “informed” enjoy the full support of the Israeli state, even though their activities contravene international law.
I don’t see why Israeli settlers should have any say in who becomes president of Ireland. And I don’t see why David Norris should be pilloried for doing nothing worse than saying his friend was someone of good character.
Our president is supposed to represent all the Irish people, wherever they live. I would be proud to have David Norris representing me.
●First published by The Electronic Intifada, 29 September 2011.