Seanad elections: David Norris on why you’ve “always got to earn the vote”

Ireland’s longest-serving senator discusses Seanad reform, the future of LGBT+ rights in Ireland, and why he’s inspired by student activism

The infamously gregarious David Norris was first elected to the Seanad in 1987, making him the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in Ireland. Having graduated with a degree in English Literature from Trinity 20 years earlier, he went on to work as a tutor and lecturer in College until 1996. He is the longest-serving current member of the Seanad, with 32 years under his belt, and possibly more in sight as he runs for reelection this spring.

When I speak to him it is over the phone, due to his high-risk status in the face of the coronavirus. On being asked if he’s concerned for his own health, he chuckles. “I’m not worried about dying, doesn’t bother me in the slightest!” This dauntless spirit has been apparent throughout Norris’ career, from his almost single-handed thwarting of the criminalisation of homosexuality in 1988, to his exit and subsequent re-entry into the Presidential race in 2011. Norris is unafraid to speak his mind and when he does, he is confident and self-assured in his beliefs, something noted over the course of our interview.

I begin by asking why he is seeking reelection, to which I receive a simple answer: “Because I still have things to do.” He is talking, firstly, about a bill he has prepared on the expansion of the heel prick test for infants. Heel prick screenings in Ireland test newborn infants for eight genetic disorders, which is very limited when compared with countries like Italy who test for forty disorders. “50 infants die each year unnecessarily,” Norris informs me. “I think if I never did anything else in the Seanad that would be worthwhile, to save the lives of 50 infants.”

Norris also cites his bid to repeal Standing Order 41 as something he feels he must complete in his time as a senator. Standing Order 41 states that the Seanad is forbidden from introducing amendments which place a cost upon the State. “I suggested that they could even use the printing of the amendment as a cost to the Exchequer,” he laughs. Norris believes this standing order to be the principal reason for amendments being ruled out of order, and if repealed it would be the first major reform of the Seanad Eireann in its history.

This year has seen a major push for reform of the Seanad election process, which has been described as unfair and elitist by some. Norris agrees that the method of electing the upper house is a problem, deeming it “completely inappropriate”, but he points out that “the only democratic element in the Seanad are the university seats, and yet they’re the ones that people continually attack as being elitist and undemocratic.” Norris sees some of the problem resting in the nominating bodies – which are “all over the place, out of date and ridiculous” in his eyes – and would encourage a complete update of them before giving the vote to the ordinary members. “Yes it’s wonderful that the architects and the doctors and all the members have the power of nominating,” Norris says, “but they should have the power to vote as well. And then I would reserve a couple of seats for people who are not included in any of those groups.”

The election of the university seats has been targeted as undemocratic because they are elected by graduates from only a select number of colleges. Would Norris support opening up the vote to graduates from all universities? While he says he would advise a change in the form of DCU pairing with Trinity and Limerick with NUI, Norris is stoic in his declaration that technical colleges are not universities. He also draws attention to the fact that there would then be over a million voters, which could make it difficult for new, younger faces to get elected into the Seanad. “I mean, people like that vote for whoever has a national profile,” he says of opening the vote to all university graduates. “I’d be alright. The new people would have a completely impossible hill to climb.”

Norris, a lifelong human rights activist, admires young people for their commitment to activism, professing that he himself is young at heart. “A lot of the radical decisions in politics have been generated from young people,” he maintains. “Look at Greta Thunberg! She’s only a child and she’s brilliant, I think she’s superb.” Is fighting the climate crisis one of his priorities? “Oh certainly, absolutely, 100%,” Norris gushes, although he does not see it as a simple fight. He mentions “the extraordinary explosion of the population” as the underlying cause; “During my lifetime, the population of the planet has trebled, and you cannot do that without inflicting serious, serious damage on the planet, but nobody ever talks about that.”

His lifetime has also seen extraordinary change in LGBT+ and abortion rights in Ireland, with Norris being at the forefront of many battles for change. Asked if he thinks we still have a long way to go, Norris deplores that some aspects of the tax laws are still discriminatory against members of the LGBT+ community, homophobic bullying still happens in schools, and some schools lack a comprehensive sex education programme. In his opinion “it is the absolute responsibility of schools to put the facts before young people, the objective facts, there’s no arguing about them – it’s up to the parents to put those facts in an ethical context.”  He believes, first and foremost, that every child is entitled to information.

A lack of information is also what Norris believes has inhibited the progression of abortion rights in post-Repeal Ireland. “I don’t think anybody wants abortion,” Norris says. “It’s a response to tragic situations. It’s a regrettable necessity, but it is a necessity.” He recounts his time as a tutor in Trinity, and the number of young women who came to him to seek advice about crisis pregnancies. “I think it was because I was gay,” he admits, “and they thought “well, he won’t be horrified. And I wasn’t.” Norris is concerned that if those students hadn’t come to him and been referred to a non-directive counselling agency, they wouldn’t have received any counselling and may have regretted their decisions. Although much has improved for women in Ireland since he was a college tutor, Norris still isn’t sure that the right information is completely available on the scale he would like to see.

When asked what he’s most proud of having achieved in his time so far, he ponders his answer. “I think possibly Palestine. I got the Senate recalled in 2014 to discuss the Israeli invasion. It was my 70th birthday, and I can’t think of a better way of spending your birthday than talking about human rights,” he laughs. “And I was only out of hospital with cancer, I could hardly stand, but I was passionate.” This same passion and dedication to human rights issues has invigorated his career for thirty-two years, and he hopes it is an indication of what he can achieve in the future.

Having been in the Seanad for so long, one might think that Norris feels secure when running. “You never feel secure!” he exclaims, admitting that people may very well want a change from him. “That’s always a possibility, so you’ve always got to earn the vote and you’ve got to let people know that you want their vote.” On that note, does he have any last words for potential voters? “Yes. Vote number one Norris!”

Sarah Moran

Sarah Moran is the current Head Copyeditor of Trinity News. She is also a Senior Sophister English Literature student.