Ireland may elect its first openly gay president, thanks to the social networking site Facebook.
The current frontrunner to succeed Mary McAleese as head of state in the Irish Republic admits that it was a Facebook campaign that prompted him to step forward for the presidency.
Two recent opinion polls have put the independent senator David Norris ahead of all other possible candidates. His election next autumn would mark an astonishing change in a country once regarded as one of the most conservative Catholic nations in Europe.
Inside a cramped office in the Irish parliament, and surrounded by 200 boxes of correspondence he is about to hand over to the Irish national archives, Senator Norris tells the Guardian he put his name forward only after hearing of a Facebook group with nearly 1,000 members calling for him to stand.
“I’ve started very early in response to the Facebook campaign,” Norris laughs.
“One of the Irish Sunday newspapers rang me up and said, ‘Do you know that nearly 1,000 people have signed on Facebook calling for you to stand for the presidency?’ It was Facebook which started all this, absolutely.
“I think it is very important to use modern technology. It helped get President Obama to win the election.”
Although, like the British monarchy’s, the Irish president’s power is more symbolic than real, elections to the post have previously been used to protest against the Republic’s political establishment. Norris is non-aligned, and is hoping to tap into the widespread discontent over the profligacy of the Celtic tiger years and the way the state’s main party, Fianna Fáil, handled the economy.
Norris denies his sexuality will be an issue even in more conservative rural parts of Ireland.
“It’s a non-issue,” he says. “It’s a non-issue with the people of Ireland. Some may have some concerns, and I hope I am able to address them. I have just had a major radio interview in Dublin and the interviewer asked me about it, and people came on the programme to say ‘Will you get out of that? What does it matter! We want someone with vision … someone who is independent.’
“The only person who said they would not vote [for] me live on air was a gay man. He rang in to say it was great that a gay man was standing for the presidency but that I was far too leftwing for him. I respect that man because he has parked what he sees as an irrelevant issue and instead goes on to analyse what I stand for.”
However, the bearded, gregarious former academic and James Joyce expert accepts that if he were elected it would be a global story. And he would use this fame, especially in the United States, to “sell Ireland”.
“Anybody else elected as president of Ireland I don’t think is going to get the same kind of sensational news coverage. And I think that’s splendid, because if I went to Washington as president every single news channel will be there hungry for a story. I have been around long enough to deal with that story with dignity and then move on to talk about Ireland, to sell our country.”
A practising Anglican, Norris rejects the notion that his campaign will come under fire from Catholic traditionalists. He claims to count the current Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmud Martin, as a friend.
On certain key ethical questions, Norris will find himself at odds with the Catholic bishops, however. He says it is a “disgrace” that Ireland has no clear legislation on stem cell research, for example. But the senator says he would be “very surprised” if the hierarchy attacked him during the campaign.
“The [Catholic] church has become wiser, and there have been so many difficulties for the church over the scandals,” he said, referring to the revelations of child abuse in Catholic institutions. “So I don’t think the church is likely to intervene and condemn me as an individual. Those days are gone.”
One of the last acts of Mary McAleese’s two terms as president will be the expected visit of a British queen to Ireland for the first time since the Republic’s foundation. Norris says he is strongly in favour of a royal visit as it would further strengthen Anglo-Irish relations.
Asked if he was worried about tabloid intrusion or muckraking over his sexuality during the campaign, Norris responds cheerfully: “I have lived a decent, respectable life, and there has been no scandal.”
Then he returns to his voluminous correspondence, some of which is from people facing grave financial problems; some of those are even contemplating taking their own lives.
Norris points to the stacks of boxes filling up his office and says: “There are some desperate people out there looking for help and advice. I pass their details on to organisations who can help and advise them. Sometimes I feel more like a counsellor than a senator.”
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