Let’s talk about… Kellie Harrington controversy

Harrington’s views on immigration haven’t changed – her PR approach has

Boxer Kellie Harrington became a household name back in August 2021 when her performance in the lightweight division of the Tokyo Olympics saw her bring home gold for Ireland. The Dublin native’s win was a point of national pride and celebration, and an inescapable news story, as headlines detailing her achievement circulated the media cycle for weeks.

Flashing forward to 2023, and over the past couple of days, Harrington’s name has once again been popping up in mainstream headlines… but this time, her sporting abilities are not the focus.

Rather, Harrington is in the news this week after clips from her recent appearance on Off The Ball began trending. During their discussion, interviewer Shane Hannon brought up a tweet from October of last year and asked the boxer if she still had the ‘strongly held views on immigration’ contained in the post.

Harrington had quote-retweeted a post from GB News in which commentator Eva Vlaardingerbroek claimed ‘young girls’ are being ‘sacrificed on the altar of mass immigration’, referring to the horrific murder of a young girl in France recently. Harrington captioned the retweet, “Very very sad. Such a powerful message from Eva Vlaardingerbroek. Our own leaders need to take a listen. She believes this is the 12th girl in France this year who has been killed by an immigrant… and that’s just France”. The tweet was deleted shortly after.

Upon being asked to clarify her views on the link between immigration and violent crime which was being alleged, Harrington immediately grew defensive, telling Hannon, “I feel right now at the moment that you’re hanging me out to dry… I feel like you’ve brought that up to bring up a bit of controversy”. And the rest of the interaction continues in just as stilted and hostile a manner, with Harrington evading comment and refusing to clarify her position to Hannon, the entire debacle intermittently interrupted by an unseen and doubtlessly panicked PR person, urging from behind the camera for them to move on from the topic and regain focus on Harrington’s new SPAR partnership (I wonder, by the way, if the supermarket branch appreciated being name-dropped during such a tense stage of the interview, when talking about such a charged and controversial subject?).

After a few more awkward back and forths – and about a million retorts from Harrington inferring the question was irrelevant anyway because the tweet was from October (a whopping five-ish months ago) – the exchange came to an end. But naturally, it wasn’t long before the clip began gaining traction online, and Harrington was forced to issue an official comment.

In a statement on Twitter, Harrington, with all the dispassionate conviction a carefully-worded press release can allow for, attempts to rescind the impression she gave on the show, clarifying that in fact, she’s “all about community, inclusion, and diversity” and that during the interview, she “reacted with (her) emotions and without the facts”. At first glance, the statement reads fine (if a bit generic and unconvincing, as these kinds of statements tend to be), but after a moment’s thought, it’s clear how paper thin Harrington’s claims in it are.

She said that when writing the controversial tweet, her “thoughts in that moment were of that young girl, and not any political opinion”, and while I don’t doubt that Harrington was indeed very moved by the truly tragic story in France, her tweet cannot be said to be politically neutral; in it, she blatantly calls on “our own leaders” “to take a listen” after drawing a heavy-handed link between immigration and incidents of violent crime. How is that not to be seen as a politically charged comment?

She also claims the reason she immediately deleted the tweet was that she “realised the significance of (it) and the hurt caused to a number of people”, but at the time she made no reference to such reasoning. All she said upon removing the tweet, apart from extending further sympathies for the tragedy in France, was, “Deleted and walked away. As someone rightly suggested, thanks. Don’t need the hate post!”. Does that comment not make the tweet’s deletion read a lot more like someone realising the bad press the post could spark, not the action of someone who’s come to some sort of instant realisation about the hurt platforming anti-immigration sentiment causes?

I’d like to believe I’m just being overly cynical by not taking Harrington at her word (or perhaps more aptly, her PR person’s word) when she says she is actually “all about community, inclusion, and diversity”, but the conviction of her earlier comments is so unbalanced by her more scripted, dispassionate, and contradictory statements on it now, that it just feels entirely unconvincing.

Harrington says in her statement, “I do not want to engage in politically sensitive matters”, despite directly engaging in such matters in her October tweet, because she’s now acutely aware that the views she holds are ones which will spark a lot of backlash, and ones which, judging by her interview on Monday, she’s either not equipped or not willing to elaborate on. She doesn’t wish to engage in these matters anymore, not because she has always been politically neutral publicly, because she’s “realised” something, or because her views aren’t actually as controversial as they came across, but because, as seen in how quickly people began calling for SPAR to end their partnership with her on the back of the scandal, it’s bad for business.

It appears to me that Harrington hasn’t evolved her beliefs on immigration since October or since Monday; it just seems that after an embarrassing interview and a desperate lack of coaching on how to deal with (or avoid dealing with) more sensitive topics, her PR team have finally stepped in to try and put out the fire. And the solution they’ve come to appears to be Harrington keeping tight-lipped about political issues altogether from now on.

Harrington told Hannon in Monday’s now infamous interview, “You know me by now, and you know you’re going to get the truth off me”. Well, it would seem we know Harrington’s views on immigration by now, but we should also know we’re not likely to get the truth off her about them again very soon.