DUBLIN – Lawmakers accused the Irish government Thursday of waging a war against political satire with a crackdown on portraits by an artistic prankster depicting Prime Minister Brian Cowen in the nude and on the toilet.
Police this week impounded two paintings by Dublin high-school teacher Conor Casby, who admitted installing them on the walls of major art galleries in an act of guerrilla art.
Casby erected one in the National Gallery alongside authorized paintings of such Irish greats as poet W.B. Yeats, slain rebel Michael Collins and singer Bono, and another in the nearby Royal Hibernian Gallery.
The portrait in the National Gallery showed a naked, overweight Cowen sitting on the toilet holding a roll of tissue. The one in the Royal Hibernian showed the nude premier staring glumly into the distance as he holds his trousers to one side.
The two galleries pulled the portraits down as soon as they were spotted, and kept them in storage.
When Irish national broadcaster RTE broadcast a tongue-in-cheek report Monday on the unauthorized artworks — and televised images of the canvas caricatures from the waist up — the powers that be weren't amused.
Senior government spokesman Eoghan O Neachtain confirmed he telephoned RTE to complain, and detectives opened an investigation the next day to identify the culprit.
RTE pulled the report and read out an on-air apology Tuesday "for any personal offense caused to Mr. Cowen or his family and for any disrespect shown to the office of the taoiseach," the Gaelic title for the premier's post. The broadcaster later insisted it wasn't responding to government pressure.
Police, meanwhile, threatened an independent radio station, Today FM, with a search warrant if it didn't hand over its e-mail communications with the artist, who soon turned himself in.
Detectives questioned Casby, 35, Tuesday, on suspicion of committing acts of public indecency, incitement to hatred and criminal damage — because he hammered nails into the galleries' walls to hang his works. Police said they also seized from his home several other paintings of notables in the buff, whom they did not identify.
In Ireland's parliament Thursday, opposition leaders tried to question Coughlan about the pressure brought to bear on broadcasters and the artist. But speaker John O'Donoghue, a government appointee, wouldn't allow it.
"We had a situation where the national broadcaster had to grovel _" said Liz McManus, communications spokeswoman for the Labour Party, before O'Donoghue cut her off.
"The public interest will not be served by a national broadcaster bowing to political pressure ... Political satire is part and parcel of our democracy!" McManus said in between calls from O'Donoghue for her to ask a different question or sit down.
Cowen wasn't present for the debate, and Deputy Prime Minister Mary Coughlan declined to address the issue.
Other politicians and journalists expressed disbelief that the government and police were devoting any resources to pursuing an artist at a time of economic crisis and deadly criminal feuding in Ireland.
"At a time when the majority of gangland murders remain unsolved, to have (police) spending their time investigating what amounted to a practical joke that offended the taoiseach's ego is a scandalous waste of resources," said Charlie Flanagan, justice spokesman for the opposition Fine Gael party.
He said RTE had been "browbeaten into a groveling apology. The way this matter has been handled is more reminiscent of Russia in the 1930s than Ireland in 2009."