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Conor McGregor before his UFC fight against Donald Cerrone in 2020 Tom Hogan/INPHO

Conor McGregor: Is the UFC's biggest star becoming a poster boy for Ireland's far-right?

The 35-year-old has hinted at a run for the presidency.

IN THE FINAL weeks of 2016, Conor McGregor consolidated a stunning sporting rise by achieving an almost hallowed status in Irish public life.

The previous 12 months had marked the greatest year of his Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) career, in which McGregor became the first two-weight world champion in the history of the UFC just eight years after working as an apprentice plumber in Dublin.

To honour the achievement, McGregor was voted RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year, succeeding Irish sporting legends like Katie Taylor, Brian O’Driscoll, Roy Keane and Sonia O’Sullivan in winning the prize.

“I’m extremely grateful and extremely blessed to have the support of my home country,” he said upon receipt of the award.

The truth of McGregor’s national support in 2016 was complex. While the RTÉ award was decided by public vote and McGregor won it by a majority, he did not enjoy the country’s unanimous approval. 

Eamon Dunphy, for instance, called it “shameful and daft” that McGregor was shortlisted for the award at the expense of Ireland footballer Robbie Brady, who scored the winning goal against Italy in that year’s European Championships.

“He’s more a celebrity than a sportsperson,” Dunphy wrote of McGregor in his Irish Daily Star column. “I’ve watched a few MMA fights and I struggle to class it as a sport.”

Just over seven years later, McGregor continues to divide opinion and has recently made more headlines for his views on immigration and Irish politics than he has for his achievements in the octagon.

His announcement last week that he would return to the UFC in June barely made a splash in comparison to a series of social media posts in the wake of the Dublin riots.

Those posts saw McGregor become a figurehead for anti-immigrant groups, after he also hinted at a run for the presidency when Michael D Higgins’ term ends in 2025.

Whether McGregor is serious about entering the political arena remains to be seen, but some have expressed concerns that he will continue to adopt far-right positions and capitalise on anti-immigrant sentiment to propel himself to the Áras next year.

It would not be his first underdog victory should he manage to achieve it.

After giving up his job to chase an MMA career, McGregor justified his decision by telling his father he would be a millionaire by the age of 25; he hit the milestone at 26. “I love to say it, I told you so,” he said in 2015.

He had made his MMA debut in Dublin in 2008, rising through the ranks to win continental titles at two different weights, which earned him an opportunity with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest promotional company in MMA.

By the time he won the RTÉ award, McGregor had brought MMA in from the fringes of Ireland’s public consciousness.

The full-contact nature of the sport – in which fighters square off in a high-walled octagon and are allowed to punch, kick, and grapple their opponents – lends itself to bloody brutality, and the late US Senator John McCain infamously dismissed the sport as “human cockfighting”.

McGregor’s father Tony pitched criticism of his son as part of a generational divide. “The older generation, they just don’t get it,” he told Bleacher Report in 2015. “This is a brand-new sport [...] so the old folks just don’t get that.”

Racist rhetoric

But only some of the objection to McGregor’s recognition at the time was in opposition to MMA itself.

McGregor keenly understood the route to success in the UFC: fights are sold on a pay-per-view basis, so the best route to a headline act is to have a force of personality to match the force of your punch.

And in a world where attention can be converted into cash, McGregor’s trash-talking of opponents frequently veered into racist rhetoric.

In 2013, he called his German opponent Dennis Siver a Nazi, and ahead of his 2015 fight with Brazil’s Jose Aldo, he said that if the two were sparring in a different time, he would “invade [Aldo's] favela on horseback and would kill anyone who wasn’t fit to work”.

The year after he was crowned the first UFC double-champion, McGregor’s fame was such that he moved into boxing, fighting Floyd Mayweather in an exhibition bout that grossed approximately $600 million.

The duo traded insults during the promotional tour, during which McGregor told Mayweather to “dance for me, boy” on stage.

Amid criticism of those comments, Dana White, the head of the UFC, said he did not believe that McGregor was racist, playing down the remarks in the context of the upcoming bout. 

“Conor McGregor is not a racist, in my opinion,” White told ESPN. “In no way shape or form do I think he was going out and trying to be a racist. I know the kid. I knew the media would pick up on it. The media loves stuff like that.”

floyd-mayweather-and-conor-mcgregor Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor during the weigh-in for their 2017 fight Derek Hogan / INPHO Derek Hogan / INPHO / INPHO

By subordinating these comments – like those about Siver and Aldo – to the fight itself, White was presiding over a sporting environment which was tolerant of comments carrying racist connotations, downplaying them as nothing more than the price of doing business.

This became a central debate in Ireland about McGregor. Did he really believe this stuff, or was he merely saying it to generate headlines to sell the fight? And, even if the latter was the case, is it acceptable to say such things in any context? 

In hindsight, it is possible to trace the line from McGregor’s self-promotion as a fighter to his self-promotion as a would-be politician beloved by Ireland’s anti-immigrant movement.

As he veered into political pronouncements, McGregor turned this Trump-like style of xenophobic attention-grabbing away from opponents and onto the Irish Government.

In the aftermath of protests in East Wall in late 2022, when far-right figures and some locals took part in high-profile demonstrations outside a building in the area which had been earmarked for refugee accommodation, McGregor made his first significant pronouncements on Irish party politics by rounding on the Taoiseach.

“Varadkar [...] should not be stepping in to lead our country. On the contrary, at present, he should be in hiding,” McGregor tweeted, subsequently posting that he “stood with the people of East Wall”.

As time went on and Ireland’s anti-immigrant movement blossomed throughout 2023, McGregor levelled further criticisms at the Government by repeating far-right talking points.

In early November, he commented angrily about the conviction of Slovakian national Jozef Puska – whose name is frequently invoked by anti-immigrant and far-right campaigners as an example of the supposed dangers of immigration – for the murder of schoolteacher Ashling Murphy.

“Horrific this whole situation has been,” he posted on X. “Shame on the Irish government for harboring this. Despicable system! The Irish government makes me ashamed to be Irish. We are appalled with you all! You can’t fix this, no problem – it is a war then and God is with us!!”

Those words were echoed weeks later on 23 November, hours after an Algerian national is suspected to have stabbed multiple people outside a school in Dublin’s Parnell Square, an attack which ultimately led to an evening of violent rioting in the capital.

On the day of the riots – before the stabbing occurred – McGregor re-shared an article by the website Gript that was critical of Varadkar for stating that non-residents in Ireland can vote in certain elections here.

Parroting a line that is becoming another far-right talking point ahead of local and European elections in Ireland this summer, McGregor accused the Government of a “scheming attempt at gaining votes” by allowing asylum seekers and foreign nationals to vote (despite the practice being allowed for decades).

He then posted a seeming call to arms: “Ireland, we are at war”.  That comment is now reportedly being investigated by Gardaí for inciting violence ahead of the riots.

Later that day, as disorder roiled and fires blazed on O’Connell Street, he posted a follow-up: “You reap what you sow.”

In criticising the Government’s immigration policy, McGregor has moved even further into far-right territory by calling for the deportation of all those living in Ireland illegally, as well as any immigrant convicted of a crime.

McGregor himself is no stranger to committing crimes in Ireland or abroad.

He pleaded guilty to assaulting a man in the Marble Arch pub in 2019 after the man repeatedly refused McGregor’s offer of a shot of his whiskey, and was fined €1,000.

It was revealed in court at the time that McGregor had 18 prior convictions between 2009 and 2018, the majority of which were for driving offences. He had also been given the Probation Act in 2009 for assault causing harm when he was an apprentice plumber.

In April 2018, McGregor was also among a group of around 20 people who stormed the Barclays Centre in New York during a media day promoting a fight between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Artem Lobov, the latter a long-time training partner of McGregor’s. 

McGregor attempted to confront Nurmagomedov as he left the arena, and threw a dolly at a bus window. McGregor later turned himself into the police, and later pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was required to do five days of community service. 

As Fintan O’Toole recently pointed out in the Irish Times, McGregor’s disorderly conduct charge in New York means he would be forced to leave America and unable to fight in the UFC if the White House introduced the policy of deporting foreigners convicted of crimes, as McGregor called for in Ireland.

khabib-nurmagomedov-motions-to-conor-mcgregors-corner-after-the-fight Khabib Nurmagomedov motions to Conor McGregor's corner after defeating him in a fight in 2018 USA Today Sports / Stephen R. Sylvanie/INPHO USA Today Sports / Stephen R. Sylvanie/INPHO / Stephen R. Sylvanie/INPHO

Politically disengaged

The transition from self-promoting fighter to far-right poster boy has been a remarkable turnaround by McGregor, who spent the early years of his career as a politically disengaged figure.

In 2015, he responded to criticism over his decision to wear a Remembrance Day poppy by tweeting: “Fuck politics and fuck religion. I just want to swing a few lefts and a few rights for a couple of hundred mill in peace.”

But like Ernest Hemingway’s famous quip about bankruptcy, McGregor began to inhabit the world of politics gradually, then suddenly.

His agnosticism seems to have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, when he began making direct political pronouncements, recording a video address in March 2020 calling for an immediate lockdown of the country. 

He also posted screenshots that appeared to show direct messages on X between himself and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe about the Covid-19 pandemic, in which he said the government needed to deploy “more units on the street to enforce this lockdown [...] it has been too lax!”

Weeks later, he was reported to have donated significant sums to provide hospitals with Personal Protective Equipment, which he was pictured delivering himself.

But consistent with his earlier about-turn on his view of politics itself, McGregor dramatically shifted his stance the following year, when he downplayed the pandemic as the vaccine rollout was in full swing and began to take a more anti-establishment view by touting conspiracy theories.

In July 2021, he claimed to have been deceived over Covid-19 when responding to someone who shared an old video of of him encouraging people to follow restrictions.

“This was early 2020 [...] I was scared for my family. I urged everyone to sit tight for a few weeks to see where we land. My opinion on this situation now is night and day to then. I actually feel I was lied to originally,” he posted.

In a foreshadowing of rhetoric on the subject of immigration, he increasingly began to voice his opposition to Covid restrictions and target politicians in the months afterwards, responding to possible lockdown restrictions by blaming the Government and warning: “Ireland will rise!”

He shared a now-deleted tweet (and an unfounded claim) that vaccines had not worked against Covid-19, before his website, The Mac Life, ran a story in December quoting his tweets in response to the imminent return of Covid restrictions.

“We do not have leaders in Ireland, we have messengers. Subordinates,” McGregor said, railing against the possibility of mandatory vaccination and suggesting Ireland should leave the European Union, a core pillar of Ireland’s far-right parties.

“Shame on you all in current power. EU lackeys. The tracks of this gravy train will soon be realigned and sent to its rightful destination of an Irish red brick wall. It’s time to talk Ireland leaving the European Union.”

Whether or not he was self-consciously doing so as he posted online, McGregor had begun to align his views with those of Ireland’s far-right political parties, which were likewise Covid-sceptic and anti-EU, and railed against Ireland’s vaguely defined political establishment by suggesting they were out-of-touch elites who were motivated by greed.

Since then, he has taken to repeating other culture war positions, including criticising the Government over its controversial hate speech bill and reposting a false claim that “radical American critical race theory” would be taught in Irish schools (another of his reposts on X that has since been deleted).

‘The people’s president’

In cultivating this new persona, McGregor initially appeared to be garnering a different kind of support for himself rather than expressing genuine, committed beliefs about politics in Ireland.

He clearly reveled in the attention that his analysis about the situation in East Wall garnered in late 2022, when he extended his appetite for creating headlines through controversial statements out of the sporting world and into the political sphere.

He spent that latest foray into political analysis spewing wildly inconsistent views which sometimes betrayed his lack of understanding about how the system here works.

In the same tweet where he took aim at Varadkar over East Wall, he complimented Tánaiste Micheál Martin (“as likeable as it comes in the space,” “no malice in him”); in another post naming Bertie Ahern as a possible future president, he referred to the former Taoiseach as “harmless” but also as someone who has “had his time”.

At one point, he suggested he would like to vote for President Michael D Higgins for a third stint in office (“my vote would be to just keep him in”), while also acknowledging that Higgins is currently on his second and final term.

McGregor also apparently believed that the Irish president sat for a four-year term – or “potentially 8 if re-voted” – as is the case in the United States, before being told correctly presidential terms in Ireland last seven years.

It was during these musings that he first suggested running for office as “the people’s president”, though he downplayed the suggestion because he acknowledged he is too young to stand for the office (McGregor was 33 at the time, but presidential candidates have to be at least 35 years old).

“I may run for Áras an Uachtaráin. I am still too young to currently. But to sit and over see this nonsense, at a closer view, in a position where a response must be given, is interesting to me. Why not? There is not a single iota of accountability here with these people,” he posted.

Though he did not initially seem overly committed to the idea at first, he clearly enjoyed being seen as a political figurehead for the nascent anti-immigrant movement.

He announced that he stood with the protesters in East Wall and said he wanted the country’s politicians to be able to answer to him, adding that he “fancied his chances of correcting” the fact the president in Ireland carries out a largely ceremonial role, without saying how exactly he would do so. 

“I would make change. I’d get my answers. Point blank. Everything on the table. A new beginning. Structure. Accountability. Fairness. Equality,” he posted.

“Ireland is simply too glorious for its present state.”

But his own flip-flopping every time he posted about the idea on Twitter led to questions about how serious he really was about becoming a politician.

He was, after all, someone who had spent years as a fighter with a penchant for self-hype, someone who supposedly said things he didn’t really mean in order to build his brand. 

But in attacking the Government, he had found another way to tap into a new legion of followers who had turned to the far-right and anti-immigration movements. 

Writing for Vice in 2015, respected MMA journalist Peter Carroll portrayed McGregor as an avatar for a “forgotten generation” of Irish people who came out of education after the financial crash; a self-made man in a world that had failed to deliver on its promises about the future. 

“He is the success story that his generation wanted to be,” wrote Carroll. “He is self-made, self-sufficient and he literally punches, kicks, knees and elbows his way through every obstacle that is put in front of him.”

The controversy around him and his outsider nature have, with hindsight, added much credibility to McGregor’s cause.

But throughout his MMA career, McGregor has spent years accidentally falling into far-right tropes long before he ever intentionally courted the movement here.

His background as an MMA fighter will already have given him a ready-made image as a strongman, the type of figure so beloved of far-right groups around the world.

During his rise to superstardom, he draped himself in the Irish tricolour (a symbol used liberally on the social media profiles of far-right figures here) and played up the subjugation of the Irish people – another topic beloved by those within the movement.

“I am an Irishman. My people have been oppressed our entire existence,” he said ahead of his fight with Mayweather in 2016. “And still very much are. I understand the feeling of prejudice. It is a feeling that is deep in my blood.”

conor-mcgregor McGregor appears at a weigh-in ahead of his fight with Floyd Mayweather in Los Angeles in 2017 Derek Hogan / INPHO Derek Hogan / INPHO / INPHO

He likewise styled himself as the progeny of ancient Irish clans, invoking a sense of racial purity while deploying the imagery of blood and battle. 

“Family history is bled on the battlefield, royalty is in our blood… it makes complete sense to me that I am doing what I am doing and in the manner that I am doing it,” he told BBC in 2015 when explaining his career choice.  

As he became the UFC’s biggest star, his fights quickly became national, must-not-miss events for a generation of younger Irish fans who travelled in droves to Las Vegas or stayed up until the early hours at home to see him in action.

The year after McGregor made his UFC debut, he fought in front of 9,500 fans at Dublin’s 3Arena, where he defeated Diego Brandao and delivered a line of characteristic brash ambition, with a boldness that would no doubt appear to those looking to overthrow Irish government elites.

“We’re not here to take part,” he told a delirious crowd, “we’re here to take over.”

Like Trump before him, his use of politically incorrect put-downs will also have endeared him to those looking for an entertaining, straight-talking outsider who can shock the Irish establishment into submission.

Even around the time of the Mayweather fight, commentators were comparing McGregor to the former US president, noting that his comments fitted with the wider political zeitgeist in the United States. 

“McGregor has also become the Donald Trump of sport,” wrote Keith Duggan in the wake of the Mayweather taunts. “It seems as if he can say anything, no matter how offensive or just plain stupid. And nothing happens. There are no consequences.” 

Though these characteristics all existed before he began weighing in on political matters here, they have made him in many ways an ideal candidate in the eyes of the far-right to run for office.

His disdain for Irish political leaders will only have added to his reputation within the movement here, following on from his views on Covid, vaccines and lockdowns.

Gone quiet

In the aftermath of the Dublin riots, a series of AI-generated images began circulating on social media which showed that McGregor’s attempt to paint himself as a natural leader had worked to some extent.

The images first appeared in channels used by Irish far-right and anti-immigrant groups on the messaging app Telegram, and were clearly inspired by McGregor’s remarks around the time of the unrest in late November.  

One depicted McGregor posing nonchalantly in front of a burning 46A bus – a reference to one act of destruction wreaked on the streets of the capital – wearing a trademark three-piece suit while a baying mob, some of them holding flaming torches, stood cheering behind him.

Another showed him walking topless and sullen on a residential street, holding an assault rifle as another crowd of angry men waved flags and held rifles of their own behind him.

In a third, McGregor stands in a formal wood-paneled building, his face relaxed as he once again wears a three-piece suit, his hand hovering over an official-looking book as men in suits watch on, in what is presumably an imagining of him being sworn in as president.

IMG-20231123-WA0008 One of the images of McGregor that appeared on Telegram in the days after the Dublin riots Telegram Telegram

McGregor himself has not publicly endorsed these images, or re-shared them himself. He posted on X that he also did not condone the riots or attacks on first responders, while also praising the Brazilian delivery driver who was one of the people to stop the attack from continuing. 

Days after the last of the pictures circulated on Telegram, however, McGregor once again bigged up his credentials for the office of president, calling out Bertie Ahern, former Taoiseach Enda Kenny and former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams as his imaginary 2025 presidential election rivals.

“Potential competition if I run. Gerry, 78. Bertie. 75. Enda, 74 [sic]. Each with unbreakable ties to their individual parties politics. Regardless of what the public outside of their parties feel. These parties govern themselves vs govern the people,” he said.

“Or me, 35. Young, active, passionate, fresh skin in the game. I listen. I support. I adapt. I have no affiliation/bias/favouritism toward any party.”

He again showed his misunderstanding of the Irish political system by suggesting that, if he became president, he would hold votes on every issue every week “to make sure” that politicians were properly making decisions on behalf of citizens.

“It would not be me in power as President, people of Ireland. It would be me and you,” he added.

However, since the fallout from the Dublin riots in the weeks of early December has died down, McGregor has also gone much quieter on his political ambitions.

Though he regularly deletes his posts on X so it is hard to keep a full track, his once-feverish commentary on immigration and other political issues has fallen away in recent weeks, as attention moves elsewhere.

Although a cartoon he shared before Christmas of himself standing in front of the Áras with his family remains online, his focus has returned to promoting his return to the UFC and his alcohol brands – reverting to the standard he set before the Jozef Puska verdict in November gave forth to weeks of posting about immigrants and Irish society.

It is an arguably capricious level of self-promotion for a potential presidential candidate to adopt one year out from the next election, but it would not be the first time that McGregor has been accused of being inconsistent for his own ends. 

In 2017, historian Liam Hogan wrote a widely-shared article criticising the “exclusionary, simplistic, and overly selective” portrayal of Irish identity adopted by McGregor.

Referring to a Facebook post McGregor had written in response to accusations of racism by Mayweather, Hogan wrote that McGregor had used “the simplistic homogeneous zombie identity of the ‘perpetually victimised Irish’ to segue into and appropriate/nullify other groups identities and histories of oppression without even blinking”.

“This is not solidarity. At best this is one-upmanship, at its worst it is erasure,” Hogan said.

It is unlikely that McGregor will completely shy away from airing his political views and criticisms of the Government, particularly given the strength of his opinions and his enjoyment of courting controversy.

His return to MMA will coincide with European and local elections in Ireland in May, when immigration will likely be a hot-button topic and several far-right candidates already indicating that they will run on an anti-immigrant platform.

Last week, McGregor posted that his routine in the coming months would be simple: “Gym, home, gym, home, gym, home.”

Since losing to Mayweather in August 2017, McGregor has fought just four times in the UFC, winning only once; at the age of 35, another defeat could spell the end of his career in the octagon, allowing him to focus on politics full-time. 

Should he stand for president, he would fit the political template we have seen across the West in recent years: a total political outsider who made his name and his fortune elsewhere, who wraps himself in his country’s flag, has re-written the terms of verbal engagement and uses a large social media following to launch a campaign primarily on immigration.  

The 2016 RTÉ award judged McGregor on his sporting prowess: any future vote will consider much, much more.

- Contains reporting by Shane Raymond.

Gavin Cooney and Stephen McDermott