By Danielle Ryan, Trinity College
Following roughly twenty-eight sleepless hours of applying the “finishing touches” and meticulously checking (and re-checking) every single reference on my eight-page long reference list, I handed in my final year dissertation to the Department of French at Trinity College. I have no idea why; my majors were in business and German, but that was the instruction, which I dutifully followed. I then skipped a class, ran across campus, and parked myself in a seat in the Science Gallery, where Senator David Norris was about to officially launch his campaign for the Irish presidency. I had been granted a two-minute interview, and there was no way that even a torturous all-nighter could deter me.
Senator Norris is the first openly gay elected official in Ireland and our first openly gay presidential candidate. In my (very) brief interview with him, I asked him not about his sexuality, as has become boring custom in interviews with the Senator, but instead asked about his plans for the presidency and for his message to young Irish graduates, heading out into what at that time looked like an economic abyss. Some would argue that we’re still facing a deep economic abyss, although four months on, our prospects do seem marginally less dire. As well as a slight improvement in our economic circumstances, there appear to have been two psychological shifts which have taken place in the mentalities of a significant number of Irish people.
To give a little background information for those unfamiliar with Irish politics; three weeks prior to my interview with Norris, in February 2011, a historic general election had taken place in Ireland. Ireland’s largest and most historically popular political party was reduced to nothing more than ruins. That election represented, we hoped, an end to the politics of the past, the cronyism and the ever-famous “keep going, sure it’s grand” attitude that had been rampant in Irish politics under the Fianna Fáil-led government. Truthfully, it had been rampant in every Irish administration since we won our independence.
“Keep going, sure it’s grand.“ This might require an explanation for what I imagine is a largely American audience! This “grand” phrase, is probably the most frequently used Irish phrase of all time – no exaggeration (we even have t-shirts). In an Irish context, “grand” means “fine” or “okay.” In other words, no matter the problem, it will invariably, you guessed it, be grand. Admittedly, a certain element of a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude is a good thing, admirable even, but as Irish people, we tend to take this sentiment just a tad too far. Perhaps because of our fractured and depressing history, we adopted the attitude as a coping mechanism.
On the 21st of November 2010, as news broke that our now disgraced former government had been seemingly left with no option but to ask the EU and the IMF for an economic bailout, we realized that things would in fact, probably not “be grand”.
To an unfamiliar bystander, Irish politics is a difficult phenomenon to explain. Irish people have an unfortunate habit of voting for, oh I don’t know, let’s say Paddy down the road “because he’s lovely to the kids when we bump into him in Mary’s Café,” for example. Quote and characters fabricated, but you get the idea. I don’t like to insult my own country – we’re commendable in many respects – but there’s no denying that this parochial mentality does exist and permeates the Irish electorate. The February election results represented the first shift in Irish political mentality.
By now you’re probably wondering what this long-winded back story has to do with Senator Norris. To my mind, Norris’s candidacy represents the second crucial shift. Until the summer of 1993, homosexuality was illegal in Ireland. Yes, you read it right, actually illegal. This in a country which was soon to be captivated by the modern roar of the Celtic Tiger.
David Norris led a hard won battle for legalization. For fourteen years, he led the campaign for homosexual law reform. The case was taken, unsuccessfully, to the Irish Supreme Court in 1980. From there it was taken to the European Court of Human Rights, where at last in 1988, Norris was successful. Unfortunately, achieving legality status was only the first hurdle in a line of many.
Although Norris faces a struggle to achieve nomination as an Independent candidate, he nonetheless enjoys the position of frontrunner in the polls – a position which as I write this is under threat due to the resignation of two top campaign aides amid controversy surrounding a previous partner who was convicted of the statutory rape of a fifteen year-old boy in 1992.
Leaving immediate controversy aside for a moment, the very fact that Norris now leads the presidential race, is nothing short of a tectonic shift in Ireland. My intention is not for this to read as though I’m about to present Norris with a lifetime achievement award. He is still, after all, a politician, who should be critiqued as any other politician should. But with respect to his work on behalf of LGBT rights, Norris is deserving of international recognition. It is in our nature as Irish citizens, he says, to “endure, overcome and succeed.” That is what he has done and it is much to his credit, that we are experiencing this second shift.
But it didn’t happen overnight. As a nation, we have been slow movers when it comes to adapting to a modern society. Abortion for example, is still illegal under most circumstances in Ireland – and although some of us would happily rewrite the last of our remaining outdated laws in an instant, others have been dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. I suppose, in a way, we’re just like everywhere else.
We have a long way to go, but these two initial shifts, from whatever angle you view them, mean that as a country, we are now less willing to accept corruption, cronyism, crookedness and blatant wrongdoing – and increasingly willing to accept a brilliant, articulate, passionate, and industrious Irish hero, who just so happens to be gay. And actually, come to think of it, that’s just grand.