After a week of controversy, criticism and fake threatened protests, former leader of UKIP and leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage addressed the College Historical Society (the Hist) this afternoon in the society’s debate chamber.
In contrast to the furore that ensued following the announcement of the MEP’s visit, the event, entitled “Anglo-Irish Relations and the Future of the EU” was relatively civilised. Farage fielded questions from the political editor of the Irish Times, Pat Leahy, and those in attendance on his role in the Brexit result, the future of Ireland’s relationship with the UK and his political career.
Scheduled to begin at 3pm, the event started 20 minutes late. He was met with applause upon entering the room and several attendees stood. National media, including RTÉ and the Irish Sun were present, taking pictures and filming outside the GMB and in the Hist chamber. Around 10 protesters stood outside.
Farage conducted his own speech uninterrupted for the first 20 minutes. He began by stating “It’s always controversial when I’m invited somewhere, but for the life of me I’ve never understood why,” before outlining his widely-known political views. Throughout his speech and the debate, he addressed the criticism he has received throughout his political career, saying: “You would think I was possibly the reincarnation of Adolf Hitler”.
While he did not reference the debacle surrounding his visit to the Hist directly, he discussed the concept of “no-platforming” in his opening speech. He urged universities to invite controversial speakers and “listen respectfully to arguments you don’t necessarily agree with.”
“This idea that if you close down debate…they’ll just go away isn’t necessarily true,” he argued, claiming those with foundationless views will be exposed through debate, referencing Nick Griffin’s performance on Question Time.
Farage criticised a range of figures, most notably UK prime minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. He called May “the worst prime minister I’ve ever seen in my lifetime”. Later in the event, he predicted that May will not remain in power long enough to see Britain leave the EU. He said he would “put his neck on the line” and predict that a Tory leadership contest would take place “before the summer”.
He then criticised Varadkar for “taking the Brussels side in EU negotiations,” which was met with applause from several audience members.
He spoke about “the way the establishment spoke down to” the British public and how experts criticised leaving the European Union. “We were almost told a plague of black locusts would descend on our country.” He argued that the same atmosphere was present in the US before their election, before pointing out students wearing “Make America Great Again” hats and chuckling along with audience members.
After Farage’s speech, questions were posed by Leahy, who took a combative tone throughout. Following a question from Leahy on the border with Northern Ireland, Farage said that he does not want a hard border. “The only person who wants a hard border is Michel Barnier,” he said. “I want the UK and Ireland to have a tariff-free deal so that they will not have to have even plate recognition technology.”
Leahy posed questions to the MEP regarding the wider European Union. He stated that he hopes the termination of the EU “happens peacefully, I hope it happens democratically”.
After being asked by an audience member about how he thinks his “lies,” particularly the claim that £350 million could be given to the National Health Service (NHS) rather than the EU, influenced the Brexit vote, he responded with “let’s talk about lies: over 50 years of them”. He said that he “begged” Boris Johnson and Michael Gove not to use the £350 million figure. “It’s not a lie but it would have always been more sensible to use a net figure”.
A question from the Irish Sun about whether Ireland needed a Eurosceptic party and whether Farage would campaign for them, prompted the Brexiteer to reminisce on his campaigning against the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 with Sinn Fein and sharing a platform with Mary Lou McDonald during the campaign. He stated that back then Sinn Fein was a “true nationalist party” not only for its stance on Northern Ireland but its opposition to EU integration. Asked by another audience member about what he “thinks about a united Ireland,” he stated that he does not think “that will happen anytime soon.” He then praised the “hard won” peace process between the north and south.
He stated that in Europe, especially in France, Italy, Greece and Austria, it is the youth vote that is particularly eager to leave the EU. He said this was likely because “so many of them have seen the disastrous damage the euro has done to their country”.
He argued that the belief that the left largely voted for Remain, while conservatives mainly voted to leave, is “just not true…There is still a largely Eurosceptic feeling” among the left, he said. “You don’t see that in parliament. You see that among the voters.” Farage claimed that David Cameron’s majority government came from UKIP splitting the vote and drawing away Labour votes.
For Leahy’s final question, he asked Farage if he ever worried that the increasing nationalism and talk of immigration would “lead us somewhere nasty”. Farage responded that“I have done more than any politician to destroy the far right since 1945”. He argued that UKIP is now a respectable party, for making efforts to discourage far-right associations.
The debate concluded after an hour and a half, with Leahy praising the “respectable” debate that had ensued. Farage left in good humour.