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Cowen starts a row over naked portraits

Actions lead to complaints that the media, arts and satire itself are under attack.

Ireland's Prime Minister Brian Cowen arrives at a EU leaders summit in Brussels March 19, 2009.(Eric Vidal/Reuters)

DUBLIN — Ireland has a reputation for political satire going back three centuries to Jonathan Swift, who famously recommended, in “A Modest Proposal,” that Ireland’s poor should sell their children as food to the rich.

Cartoonists today regularly depict politicians in the newspapers as bloated, stupid, incompetent or crooked, and sometimes all of the above.

“Political satire is part and parcel of our democracy,” said Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, the main opposition party in the Irish parliament.

Kenny's comment comes in the midst of a political furore over the latest, and quite brazen, attempt at satire: a depiction of the Taoiseach (prime minister), Brian Cowen, as an emperor without clothes.

Several days ago, two unflattering paintings showing Cowen semi-nude (in one he held his underpants in his hands, in the other he held a toilet roll), were hung by an anonymous prankster in the National Gallery and the Royal Hibernian Academy in central Dublin. They were taken down after security officers were alerted. The story was reported on the evening news on RTE, the national broadcasting organization.

There the matter might have rested but for a complaint from Cowen’s office that displaying the portraits to television viewers was insulting and in bad taste. This resulted in an apology from RTE the following evening for any offense taken by Cowen or his family. That started a debate on political interference in the broadcast media.

Then Dublin radio station 2FM reported that after announcing on air that it had received emails from the artist, a police officer arrived to demand (in vain) that the emails be handed over, citing pressure from “the powers that be.” The officer told the program producer there were three possible charges being considered, incitement to hatred, indecency and criminal damage to the wall.

The notion of the police being used to pursue an artist at a time when national outrage is directed against the banks, developers and politicians that have got the country into a mess touched a nerve. No fewer than nine letters pouring scorn on the government appeared on March 27 in the letters page of The Irish Times, an infallible arbiter of the national mood.