Absence of concern for victim was Norris error

David Norris made mistakes in the face of moral dilemmas, but they should not have stopped his candidature, writes Vincent Browne

David Norris was presidential yesterday in his withdrawal speech outside his splendid home on North Great George's Street in Dublin, even though there was an inevitability about the withdrawal once his Oireachtas supporters began to melt away. The candidates who remain in the presidential campaign seem dreary by comparison.

But dreariness is an asset at times in public life, for it helps avoid the kind of toxic controversy Norris ignited by the revelation of his letters urging clemency for his former partner who had been convicted of having sex with a minor and, even more so, by his remarks earlier about pederasty. He handled those controversies badly – controversies in an arena of national shame.

A report funded by government departments and published almost a decade ago, Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, revealed that one in five women reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood and a quarter of these (5.6 per cent of all girls) reported having been raped in childhood. One in six men (16.2 per cent) reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood and 2.7 per cent of all boys reported having been raped in childhood. We are talking here of more than 100,000 women having been raped in childhood and about 57,000 men.

The report showed 10 per cent of all women were raped in the course of their lifetime (including, obviously, their childhood), which means about 200,000 Irish women have been raped. The report showed 3 per cent of men were raped in their lifetime; that is about 60,000, usually as boys.

And yesterday we were informed, courtesy of Carl O'Brien of the Irish Times, that hundreds of child protection reports are not being assessed or followed through, leaving hundreds of children at risk of abuse. The reality is that thousands of children are not just at risk but are being abused, unless – implausibly – the epidemic identified nine years ago has ended.

David Norris did not seem to appreciate the enormity of this debasement.

Those representations he made seemed devoid of any overarching concern for the psychological consequences to the boy who had sex with Norris's associate.

That is possibly explicable by the closeness of that personal association, as he protested yesterday. Nevertheless, those representations on their own, in mitigation of sentence, hardly justified demands that he be denied candidature in the presidential election.

But what was disquieting was the confluence of that absence of concern for the psychological welfare of that boy with his trivialising of pederasty. In a 2002 interview in Magill he was quoted as saying there was "something to be said" for "classic paedophilia ". He was also quoted as saying: "The law in this sphere should take into account consent rather than age."

In a formal statement he issued last May in response to the resurfacing of that interview, he said: "Pederasty is a term describing sexual relations between an older and a younger man in ancient Greece." He said that on reading Plato's Symposium, in which there is a discussion about pederasty: Plato thought of this as "an enlightening approach to sexuality".

Pederasty is the "love of boys" on the part of older men, which was a feature of male culture at least among the privileged classes in ancient Greece. It covers sexual relations not just between older men and younger men but between older men and boys, people we now regard as minors.

There does not seem to have been a concern in that culture of ancient Greece of the dangers of boys being deeply scarred psychologically by sex at a young age with very much older men and the likelihood of the exploitation of the inexperience and vulnerability of youth.

The favour with which David Norris regarded this culture seemed disturbing. But I did not think this should have been the cause of his disbarment from the presidential campaign either – being elected president is a different matter. His candidature would have made the issue of the sexual abuse of children a major feature of the campaign debate, and there might then be more awareness of the scale of that problem and of the urgent necessity of prioritising resources to address it.

Norris has been a powerful advocate for the rights of other vulnerable people here and elsewhere. This is a decent man who, like most of us, perhaps wobbles in the face of some moral dilemmas and makes mistakes. He has been an elemental force in this society, almost entirely for the good, and he has some of the attributes desirable in a president, notably the personality and charisma appropriate for the office.

His use of that Samuel Beckett quote yesterday, "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better", assured us he is going to be an important voice in our public affairs for some time yet. It was also a reminder of what we are missing. We deserved the option of electing him president, or not electing him as president. It's a pity that is not to be.