From top: Drawings of then Taoiseach Brian Cowen hung as a prank in the National Gallery of Ireland and the RHA in 2009; Simon McGarr
Solicitor Simon McGarr writes:
In 2009, Conor Casby, an artist and schoolteacher walked into the National Gallery of Ireland and the Royal Hibernian Academy and hung a portrait he had painted in each.
Each picture was of the Taoiseach, Brian Cowan and each depicted him nude from the waist up.
Over a fortnight after the paintings had been removed, RTÉ ran a lighthearted report on the stunt.
It triggered an astonishing response.
The TV news memory-holed its own report and ran an apology the following day for having accurately told its audience of the event.
Then the police got involved.
They turned up at the offices of Today FM demanding information on their sources so they could identify and bring multiple charges against the artist.
“The powers that be want action taken” they told the producer.
It is important to recognise the context of this explosion of this exercise of state power.
In Sept 2008 FF nationalised bank debt. By March 2009 Fianna Fáil had been in power, uninterrupted, for 12 years. The party had dominated Irish politics and the Irish State for decades.
Brian Cowen had been made Taoiseach by FF TDs. He resigned as leader before the subsequent election. He never stood for the post in a public vote.
He was a courtier’s choice. He was later (2011) described as “worst Taoiseach in the history of the State”.
Fianna Fáil, as a party of hegemonic power based on the distribution of patronage to supporters, were destroyed in this time. They have never recovered that position and, to this day, have never identified a clear replacement identity.
In March 2009, FF led by Brian Cowen was still in office, and still wielding the power of the state. But it had lost legitimacy.
The mild mockery of the Cowen portraits (and the even milder report on them by RTÉ) were a sign of that loss of legitimacy.
We can only imagine at this remove the level of paranoia and panic a government run by a party which has always enjoyed overwhelming support feels as its supporters turn on it.
Everything would feel like an dangerous attack- a siege mentality would set in.
We have checks and rules on the use of state power precisely because sometimes the people who have it are not paragons.
Sometimes, they over-react or simply make bad choices.
And the rules are there to protect us from the state being used to settle personal scores.
The FF/FG/Green Govt is currently bringing in laws to regulate both broadcasting and online discussion.
They have, wrongly, decided to try to police things that the regulator decides are not criminal, but are still “harmful”.
We should remember the State’s reaction to two innocuous but unflattering portraits of a man holding the most powerful office in the land.
Remember RTE’s behaviour.
Remember the police behaviour.
And ask if a state censorship board for discussion between citizens is a good idea.
I’ve written previously about why I think this is one example of why the BAI’s experience makes it the worst choice to regulate the internet.
The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill will return before the Oireachtas next week
Please contact your TDs and let them know of your concerns if you, like me, think the proposed law is misguided.