David Norris, who had a very good chance of becoming the first openly homosexual President of Ireland, has quit the campaign after it was revealed that in 1997 he asked an Israeli court to spare his former partner on rape charges.

Norris, who as recently as last week was leading popularity polls, came under enormous pressure to extinguish his bid for the presidency.

The Irish senator admitted he had written to a court in Israel pleading for clemency for his ex-lover Ezra Yitzhak, who was facing charges of the statutory rape of a 15-year-old Palestinian boy in 1992.

Yitzhak, a peace activist, pled guilty to the charge and was convicted five year later. He subsequently served time in prison.

In his letter, written on Irish parliamentary letterhead, Norris claimed Yitzhak was a good person who had been lured into a trap and should not have pled guilty.

Speaking outside his Dublin home, Norris told reporters: "The motivation to write the letter was out of love and concern. I was eager to support someone who was very important in my life. It is very sad that in trying to help a person I love dearly, I made a human error."

However, he added: “I do not regret supporting and seeking clemency for a friend, but I do regret giving the impression that I did not have sufficient compassion for the victim of Ezra's crime.”

He further stated: “The fall-out from his disgraceful behavior has now spread to me and is in danger of contaminating others close to me, both in my political and personal life. It is essential that I act decisively now to halt this negative process. I do not regret supporting and seeking clemency for a friend, but I do regret giving the impression that I did not have sufficient compassion for the victim of Ezra's crime."

When news of the controversial letter emerged, three former parliamentary backers of Norris withdrew their support, virtually dooming his campaign. Some of Norris campaign staff also resigned.