Unflattering Portraits


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.

The Online Safety And Media egulation Bill 2022


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14 thoughts on “Unflattering Portraits

  1. david langwaLLNER

    let us organise a competition to banksy like plaster similar portraits of veruka, coveney, noonan and some of the residue of ff all around dublin

    encourage artists

    1. TenPin Terry

      Graffiti ? Criminal damage ?
      You old ambulance-chaser you …
      I bet your favourite chat-up line for the ladies is ” If you’ve had an injury at work then Lawyers4LootRus. ”
      However, I agree. Satrirical and subversive art is important in a functioning democracy.

      1. David

        Frankly if this bill comes in there is no democracy

        I am not an ambulance chaser they are preying on the vulnerable of Ireland

  2. Gringo

    The establishments default position with regard to criticism or mockery has always been censorship and suppression. Nothing much has changed in the last hundred years as there are still many incompetent people in government and the civil service who need to be protected from scrutiny.

  3. Ian - oG

    I remember it well, utter hilarity and as per usual the plods made themselves look as dumb as ever.

  4. E'Matty

    McGarr is always to the fore on issues of data privacy and similar. He’s generally very on point. I think he’s absolutely spot on here in calling out the chilling effect this Act could have on our freedom of expression and the abuse of power that pervades anytime Official Ireland is called out and closes ranks. One of Ireland’s better solicitors it appears.

    1. david langwaLLNER

      I agree noticeable the offence of causing harm and offence is totally contray to the jurisprudence of the echr on freedom of speech and the regulatory commissioner sinsister

      1. jonjoker

        Is Ireland bound by their jurisprudence?
        And if so, how does this legislation come about?

          1. david langwaLLNER

            when the legislation is challenged you win in europe and then they in the domestic courts water down or evade liability

  5. K.Cavan

    I’ve enough rings in my trunk to recall the censorship of yore, how we emerged out of it into a much more Liberal Ireland, now we edge back into the darkness, courtesy of that same Liberalism, how ironic is that? Political censorship of any kind is an abomination & all who support it, and they are legion, are Totalitarians, no matter what they might care to label themselves.
    What’s worse, the real impetus for these laws is not a groundswell of local feeling but the diktats of Globalist Oligarchs, which will, if not forcefully opposed, have us witnessing someone being prosecuted, in a court, for a tweet. That tweet may be decried as ”hate speech”, another liberal brain-fart imported under duress & a concept who’s legal definition is basically ”Hurty Feelings on the part of the complainant”.
    Unfortunately, it seems this is another of the prices the Irish must pay if we are to achieve the position of minority.

    1. David langwallner

      this is very perceptive but the global elite is corporate fascist totalitarian old whiggish liberlaism present company excluded not present

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