Perhaps we should back off from legislating on what others can and cannot say?

This one has been bubbling under for the last 24 hours. It’s to do with late Joe McWilliams and the one painting he offered the Royal Ulster Academy:

The RUA said McWilliams was a former president between 2000 and 2004 and as a senior academician with the organisation, was entitled to submit work “without selection” meaning he was responsible for deciding the piece, its subject matter and treatment, for the exhibition.

RUA president Dr Denise Ferran said: “This year, due to a long protracted illness, Joseph McWilliams submitted one painting, his last work titled ‘Christian Flautists outside St Patrick’s’, one of the largest works painted by him of this subject matter.

For some this is disruptive art. For others, it’s close to hate crime. That’s how we roll in Northern Ireland. No one is Charlie for very long, it seems. Our defence of art and free speech is dependent on our own subjective sympathies.

It may be hard to defend something that appears to be going out of its way to offend. A veritable act of revenge. But there it is. When a case on Jim Wells was sent to the DPP (and stayed there for six months), did anyone object?

True, Jim is not an oil painting. But we could go some consistency in this regard. For me, the McWilliams piece has a similar effect as the outsize French Republican comic humour of Charlie Hebdo.

That is I don’t much warm to it. But McWilliams’ brutalist ‘voice’ is every bit a part of who we are as Jim Wells’ outspoken views on gay marriage.

Perhaps we should back off from legislating on what others can and cannot say, and let the Northern Irish public space breath a little more easily?

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