Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President László Molnárfi traded verbal blows over government policy and track record at an event organised by the College Historical Society (the Hist) last week.
Molnárfi was one of a number of invited speakers to the event at which Varadkar gave a keynote address on the importance of student debate.
The pair remained diplomatic and engaged in good faith throughout their speeches as they debated housing, health, social issues and foreign policy.
In his opening address, Varadkar, a Hist alumnus, highlighted the role of student-led debate in major political moments such as marriage equality and 8th amendment referenda.
“Debates are important because we learn best from listening to others… We are stronger for having our ideas tested, challenged and interrogated.”
In response to the Taoiseach’s speech, Molnárfi argued that “student debate is important because it allows us to challenge those in power, and the prevailing ideas of the ruling elite”
Wearing a t-shirt which read “Fine Gael Out, Fianna Fáil Out, Greens Out”, Molnárfi highlighted that it is not often that students get the opportunity to directly challenge government politicians in an open forum.
“Sometimes, we have to stand up and disrupt,” he said, referring to an occasion in which Molnárfi and other student activists protested against an address by Minister Eamon Ryan on campus, at which students were given no “unfiltered” opportunity to respond.
“In this case, there is no need for such action, I can simply lay out the facts plainly,” he added, taking the opportunity to criticise the track record of governments led by Varadkar and Fine Gael over the past 12 years.
“Through facts and logic, we can expose the Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Greens coalition for what they are – a government of the rich, of the vulture funds and the capitalists. This government deserves to be called out at every occasion.”
Concluding his speech, Molnárfi charged that government policies “amount to social murder”
“People are exposed to conditions because of state policies that damage their health, such as homelessness, such as inability to access healthcare, such as climate pollution, and so they die prematurely.”
“This is why we should embarrass them, challenge them and stand up to them at every opportunity, and hold them accountable for their actions.”
In response to Molnárfi’s claims that government acts only on behalf of vested interests, Varadkar said that he has met with trade unions and charity organisations “about 10 times more frequently” than anyone from a vulture fund.
Varadkar acknowledged that while the influence of corporate donors can be significant in countries like the US and UK, it is not as true in Ireland since it “pretty much ban[s] corporate donations”.
Under Irish legislation, political parties may only accept donations exceeding €200 from corporate bodies if the corporate donor is registered in the Register of Corporate Donors, which Varadkar called “wonderfully liberating” for politicians.
Molnárfi condemned the failure of government housing policy, highlighting an all-time high of 13,000 homeless despite one in 25 houses in Ireland being vacant, including 12,000 in Dublin alone.
He blamed this on the high number of TDs and senators who own second properties and receive rental incomes, who prefer to “treat housing as a commodity”.
Varadkar admitted to being a landlord himself, but added that most in Ireland, including him, own just one property.
“The vast majority of landlords are not corporate entities. They’re just everyday people who own apartments.”
In response to criticism for ending the eviction ban, Varadkar highlighted that the current coalition government introduced the first eviction bans in the history of the state, one during the first wave of the pandemic and another last winter.
“It wasn’t something we got rid of, it was something we actually introduced.”
Varadkar argued also that the solution to homelessness was not perpetual eviction bans, but rather the construction of “vast amounts” of new social housing, on which he claimed the government is “making up for a massive deficit” from a period of seven years in which no new housing was built.
At the event, Varadkar also criticised a Trans Writers’ Union boycott of the Irish Times in which a number of student groups on campus took part, including this paper.
“A newspaper should not be boycotted because it once published an article that some people disagree with,” he said.
Both the Hist and its GMB counterpart the University Philosophical Society (the Phil) declined to participate in the Irish Times Debate competition in 2021 and 2022 due to an alleged pattern of transphobia in the Irish Times’ editorial decisions.
“Even in the finest and oldest debating societies mistakes can be made. A national debating competition should not be boycotted because it is sponsored by that same newspaper, in my opinion.”
Maggie Larson, who was auditor of the Hist when it first boycotted the competition, defended the decision, acknowledging that “it was not an uncontroversial position at the time”.
“Sometimes you do have to stand behind your convictions and stand with those who are marginalised and who are suffering.”
In his response, Varadkar reaffirmed his “genuine respect” for the decision, and its motivation “to stand beside our trans community who are very much under attack” at the moment.
Both societies will participate in the Irish Times Debate this year. The Trans Writers’ Union did not respond to request for comment.
Ireland’s response to recent intensification of violence in Israel and occupied Palestine was also discussed during the event.
While Larson expressed admiration for the Irish government’s calls for Israel to exercise restraint and to abide by international law in reacting to Hamas.
Molnárfi acknowledged that while the government’s response was “better than the rest of the EU, the bar is very low,” and criticised Fine Gael for blocking the Occupied Territories Bill which would economically sanction Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Varadkar’s generally warm response from the audience turned to stony silence as he expressed his view that Israel is the “closest thing to a democracy in the middle east”.
“If I went to Gaza as gay man, it would be a crime for me to live the life that I do – yet I could go to one of the best Prides in Tel Aviv.”
He continued: “If I’m a woman living in Gaza, potentially under Islamic law I don’t have the freedoms that an Israeli woman has. Is Gaza not an apartheid state?”
“Why apply one standard to Israel, and a different standard to Gaza? I don’t think that’s right. I think that view should be challenged.”