David Norris in Irish presidential campaign row

By Conor Spackman
BBC News

Image caption,
David Norris has said the original Magill magazine article took his comments out of context

If the last few Irish presidential election campaigns were anything to go by, it was probably unlikely that this one would proceed without controversy.

The path to becoming head of state has become fraught with barely a single candidate emerging without some allegation or innuendo against them.

Allegations of casual drug use, workplace bullying, and a lack of dedication to family life have all featured.

There are still seven months before this year's election, but already the campaign is filling column inches.


Academic David Norris sits in the upper house of the Irish parliament and has become well known in the country for his human rights campaigns, particularly around the issue of gay rights.

He wants to stand as an independent and is hopeful of garnering enough political support to do so.

But before he can, he needs to fight off concerns about his suitability for office.

Those issues have been raised by a journalist, Helen Lucy Burke, who interviewed Mr Norris in 2002 and subsequently quoted some views he had expressed on the subject of paedophilia and incest.

"I cannot understand how anybody could find children of either sex in the slightest bit attractive sexually," he said.

"But in terms of classic paedophilia, as practised by the Greeks for example, where it is an older man introducing a younger man or boy to adult life, I think there can be something to be said for it.

"And in terms of north African experience this is endemic. Now again, that is not something that appeals to me."

'Whiff of prejudice'

Ms Burke told state radio on Monday that the contents of the article were "startling" - prompting Mr Norris to make his own appearance on the airwaves 24 hours later, insisting that he had been taken out out of context.

He said: "Do you think I'd be allowed to babysit for my neighbours' children? Do you think I'd be allowed to teach young people?

"If anybody is in any doubt, I abhor and condemn the abuse of children, sexual, physical or psychological - and my record shows that."

While admitting that he had been "foolish" to have discussed the issues, Mr Norris also expressed his concerns about the timing of the controversy.

Image caption,
Mary Robinson was said during her election campaign to have had "a new found interest in her family"

"This is calculated. This is quite specific. This story has been out there for the past 10 years. Why now? Why now at this minute?" he asked.

The row has briefly disengaged Irish commentators from their focus on the country's economic woes.

An Irish Times editorial on Wednesday said there was a "whiff of prejudice" about the controversy and warned that Mr Norris' sexuality should not be a factor in the campaign.

Irish Independent columnist Jonathan Fallon wrote that while Mr Norris' comments were "ill-judged", their emergence now was an "ugly smear".

"They are seizing an opportunity for their own ends that is neither Christian, fair or in the true spirit of any republic," he said.

Despite the row, Mr Norris remains the bookmakers' current favourite to become head of state later this year.

Recent history suggests that there may be a few twists and turns before anyone who has backed him will be able to collect their winnings.