Wednesday 18 September 2019

Kenny lays bare his opinions, but Cowen wears a Mona Lisa smile

Lise Hand

WHO knew there were so many doughty defen-ders of freedom of expression arrayed along the Dail benches?

And so many aficionados of fine art?

Even if the Mona Lisa herself had materialised in the chamber yesterday, there couldn't have been more excitement.

But unfortunately for all those eager for some intellectual debate on such lofty topics as art as satire, and the lack of appreciation in Government circles for art as satire -- this was the Order of Business, not RTE's arts show 'The View', and the man in the chair was the eagle-eyed John O'Donoghue, not culture-vulture John Kelly.

And the Ceann Comhairle was not in the mood for any philosophical monologues that didn't strictly pertain to legislative matters -- which meant that he had his hands full, as the opposition were chomping at the bit to discuss the paintings of Biffo in the buff.

Enda was out of the traps like a starving greyhound. The Ceann Comhairle nodded approvingly as Enda dutifully broached the subject of the Defamation Bill, but suddenly the Fine Gael leader set off after a different hare.

"I understand a grovelling, unreserved apology was issued for a piece of political satire as a consequence of the Government press secretary contacting RTE," he began, as John hared off after him.

"That is not in order now. The deputy asked about the Defamation Bill. I cannot go into that business. The deputy is completely out of order. He will have to find another way to raise that," tutted John.

But no matter how many times the Ceann Comhairle tried to bring Enda to heel, he plunged on determinedly.

"A detective garda was assigned to go to a radio station... the crime involved was putting a nail in a wall... the resources of the State have been wasted... what part did the Government play..." taunted Enda. He was thoroughly enjoying himself.

However, the Ceann Comhairle was having no truck with the notion of freedom of speech. Shaking his head, he glared at the still-gabbling Enda. "Deputy Kenny will have to resume his seat because I am not going into that nonsense at all. The deputy should stop it. That is for 'The Dandy' or such like."

The Fine Gael benches were gleeful. "It used to be 'Scrap Saturday', now it is scrap RTE," shouted Mayo's Michael Ring. But Transport Minister Noel Dempsey was ready for him. "We do not need 'Scrap Saturday' now that we have Deputy Ring," he retorted swiftly.

But the Labour deputies were equally keen to confabulate on the spot of handbags between various members of the media and various denizens of the corridors of power. But for once it wasn't Joan Burton who was giving the Ceann Comhairle heartburn, but the usually well-behaved Liz McManus.

"I have a question on legislation," said the Wicklow deputy, then launched a sneak attack. "The national broadcaster had to grovel..." she started, before John pounced. "The deputy is back to the same old game," he sighed in disappointment.

But Lady Liz wasn't cowed. "The Ceann Comhairle will not talk me down," she said regally. "I have a legitimate question which is in the public interest."

John had heard that one before. "The deputy should ask a question relevant to the Order of Business and within Standing Orders. She should not mind that old stuff," he advised Liz.

"I have not finished my sentence," she replied frostily. "We live in a democracy where political satire is part and parcel of our culture!" she proclaimed forcefully -- but she too, got nowhere. Freedom of expression, how are you.

At least Enda got his soapbox moment later yesterday at his press conference to launch Fine Gael's economic stimulus plan. With no Ceann Comhairle to disapprove of any peroration on nude portraits and the like, Enda cheerfully gave his opinion on the brouhaha which began as a local story about an ingenious guerrilla artist and which -- thanks to some heavy-handed intervention -- turned into an international news item.

"The point I was making was that this is political satire, and the reaction of Government in my view was absolutely over the top," reckoned Enda.

But what of the artist's muse himself? What does the Mona Lisa of the Midlands make of the whole kerfuffle?

During a doorstep interview yesterday, the Taoiseach was asked if he had any thoughts on becoming the biggest art sensation since the discovery of the lost Caravaggio?

Brian just smiled inscrutably. "No," he said. He was darned if he was going to bare his soul, too.

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