Senator David Norris received the Praeses Elit Award from the Law Society on October 11th. Norris was greeted by a crowd of students who braved the wet and windy weather to see the Senator speak. Upon entering the chamber, Norris, filled with discernible vim, asked every student in his eyesight where they were from and was visibly delighted with each answer.
Before being presented with the award, Secretary Louise Cullen introduced Norris. His many accomplishments referenced included being the first openly gay person to be elected for public office in Ireland, his valiant work in Norris v Attorney General and Norris v Ireland, which are credited with ending the criminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, and his consistent efforts as a human rights activist.
Norris then sat down with Law Society Auditor Eoin Ryan for a Q&A. Norris, who graduated from Trinity with a degree in English Literature and Language and then went on to become a lecturer and tutor, spoke fondly of his time at the college, saying he “loved it because the people were inspirational”.
Norris spoke at length of his time fighting to legalise homosexuality in Ireland, time and time again emphasising the enjoyment he gained from his work. “It was great fun,” he said of his time fighting for gay rights. Even losing Norris v Attorney General hadn’t seemed to dampen his spirits. “Losing was an opportunity” he said, “it gave an opportunity for the public to take what was at the time a revolutionary stance”. Even in the midst of loss and injustice, Norris maintained that the main goal was to “blow away the veil of secrecy” and “the camouflage away from homosexuality”. He shared that though he has felt pride for all his numerous victories, the one that he is the most proud of was when he worked to stop the closure of a home for elderly women, saying with immense satisfaction: “32 old ladies were saved from being flung out on the street”.
It was evident that Norris feels great pride not just for his achievements but also for the people of Ireland. It was a point he drove home, calling the Irish “generous, decent, and tolerant”. Norris spoke of the day in 2015 that gay marriage was legalised, telling the audience that he walked past celebrations in pubs before going home for a glass of red wine with a beloved neighbour. He deemed it a moment where the people of Ireland were speaking as a whole.
It was clear his time fighting for equal rights had not come without challenges, though he has taken these in good humour, often breaking into imitations of those who opposed him on the way to justice. Contextualising just how far we have come, Norris told an anecdote of his first pride parade in which one of his seven companions happened to work on the street the parade was being held. The woman took great care to avoid her place of work out of fear of prejudice. Similarly, Norris shared that, after coming out, a colleague had told him to say that he’d had a nervous breakdown and to simply take it back. Sharing these moments of frustration with an audience who may subconsciously take their rights for granted at times was a sobering yet poignant reminder that these injustices existed not so far from our lifetime.
Coming to what he saw the next major civil rights fight being, Norris briefly mentioned changes to tax law before looking somewhat sternly at the audience: “It’s up to the next generation … up to you to say what you want”. When asked by an audience member what advice he would give to said next generation, he highlighted the importance of establishing which rights were had by all and which were still wanted, then to go out and assert them.
Norris was also asked about the current situation between Israel and Palestine, to which he replied “it’s about time we put an embargo on goods originating in the occupied area”, naming this as a small but significant step. Norris called it a question of human rights saying, “I didn’t just fight for gay rights, I fought for human rights”. He reiterated that, for him, all human rights are indivisible.
Norris, who seems far younger than his 79 years, brought both intellect and humour as well as inspiration to the event, with piercing wit and a unique perspective on Irish and global events. Though Norris may have received the well deserved Praeses Elit award, it seems that the Law Society and the attendees were the true prizewinners that day.