THE scale of a Garda hunt for an artist who placed satirical portraits of Taoiseach Brian Cowen in two galleries was branded “sinister” by Fine Gael last night.
Justice spokesman Charlie Flanagan said it was a “shocking overreaction” for officers to demand that Today FM surrender emails relating to the prank and was a menace to freedom of expression.
The opposition claimed the Government’s “heavy-handed” response had escalated the caricatures into a global talking point and a negative reflection on Ireland.
A 35-year-old teacher, Conor Casby, was questioned by gardaí over the unauthorised hanging of the two portraits of Brian Cowen in the National and RHA galleries, but sources say he will not face charges.
Mr Casby also handed over five paintings of other senior politicians.
Radio producer Will Hanafin said the detective who intervened with Today FM told him: “The powers that be wanted it done.”
When he refused to hand over any information, Mr Hanafin said he was told the gardaí may seek a search warrant.
The Government denied it had orchestrated the Garda action, insisting the investigation had been instigated by the art galleries.
The affair first took on political dimensions when RTÉ apologised for any “disrespect” caused to the office of the Taoiseach after the Nine O’Clock News broadcast a lighthearted report on the portraits which provoked an official complaint by the Government press secretary.
The state broadcaster’s apology and the Garda intervention at Today FM propelled the prank into an international news story.
Mr Flanagan condemned the Garda action as an appalling waste of resources: “I am shocked at the approach taken by the Government and the gardaí in relation to this issue.
“At a time when the majority of gangland murders remain unsolved, to have gardaí spending their time investigating what amounted to a practical joke that offended the Taoiseach’s ego is a scandalous waste of resources.
“Today FM has clearly come under pressure to hand over emails about this matter — which is a sinister development — while RTÉ News was obviously browbeaten into a grovelling apology. The way this matter has been handled is more reminiscent of Russia in the 1930s than Ireland in 2009.”
The two portraits — one showing a nude Mr Cowen seated on a toilet holding a toilet roll, while the other has the Taoiseach holding his underwear — have been seized by Gardaí.
Mr Hanafin said the detective told him the investigation was looking at three potential offences of indecency, incitement to hatred and criminal damage (by hammering a nail into a gallery wall).
The Government press secretary said he was not acting on the Taoiseach’s instructions when he complained to RTÉ.
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