The Belfast Rape Trial and Women’s Rights in Ireland

*TW: Rape, Sexual Assault

Two Irish rugby players walk into a club. It sounds like the start of a joke, but it’s actually the basis of Northern Ireland’s most high-profile rape case that shook the island of Ireland to its core over the past nine weeks. The facts of the case are as follows: on 27th June 2016, the Ulster Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding (both of whom have played on the Irish national rugby team), and their friends Blaine McIlroy and Rory Harrison are on a night out at a club in Belfast. They head back to Paddy Jackson’s house for a house party with a few other people, including the young woman at the centre of the case, at around 2:30 am. At around 5:00 am, the woman leaves — ‘in ‘hysterics’’ and bleeding — in a taxi with Harrison, who drops her home. She texts her friends, telling them she’s been raped. She tells her friend that she doesn’t want to report it because it would mean going up against Ulster Rugby club. Despite this, the next day she attends a sexual assault centre and on 29th June, she contacts the police. The Public Prosecution Service decide there is enough evidence to charge Jackson with rape and sexual assault, Olding with rape, McIlroy with indecent exposure, and Harrison with perverting the course of justice and withholding information. All four strenuously deny the charges, stating that any sexual engagement was consensual. The trial lasts for nine weeks, and on 28th March 2018, all four are unanimously acquitted by jury.

Laganside Courts, Belfast

Laganside Courts in Belfast where the trial took place. Source: Geograph.

From a purely legal perspective, justice was done. Evidence from both sides had been presented, the age-old adversarial system had done its job. Blood was found on the bed where the alleged rape was said to have taken place. It matched the victim’s. Semen matching Olding’s DNA was found on her clothes. The victim had a one centimetre vaginal laceration and bruising on her arms and legs. A doctor at the trial said she could not determine whether the sex was consensual or not. Northern Irish criminal law in relation to sexual offences reflects that of the rest of the UK, with the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a crime was committed. The jury of 12 of the men’s peers, a golden rule in the British criminal system dating back to the Magna Carta, unanimously acquitted them. According to the jury, the prosecution had failed to convince them of any of the charges against the four men. They left the court free men, surrounded by friends and family and a mob of journalists.

From a social perspective, justice is not so straightforward. The trial itself has wreaked havoc on the Irish public. During the trial, local newspapers plastered the story to their front pages, and social media was abuzz. Rugby players are worshipped both sides of the border, and many members of the public came out in support of the four men. The captain of the Irish rugby team even made an appearance at the trial. Much of the case was centred around what happened in the two and half hours during the house party and its aftermath. The woman was in the witness box for eight days while each of the accused took the stand for less than half a day each. The woman’s underwear was paraded around the court and there were sniggers and jeers from the public gallery while she gave evidence. Rape trial “day-trippers” packed the public gallery every single day of the trial. The woman’s conduct throughout the night and after was examined in excruciating detail, from her choice of underwear, whether she wore fake tan, her consumption of alcohol, to the emojis she’d used in texts telling her friend she’d been raped.

Irish Rugby Club Logo. Source: DUFC.

The court was shown evidence of the men’s Whatsapp conversations, which the defence deemed as banter, where Olding told the group “we’re all top shaggers” and that “a bit of spit-roasting went on last night, fellas”, to which others asked “Any sluts get f*****?”. McIlroy wrote “love Belfast sluts.” When they realised the woman had gone to the police, McIlroy sent “Hopefully it will be thrown out. Just a silly little girl […] causing so much trouble for the lads”. The defence barristers labelled the woman as delusional, obsessed with celebrities, demanding to know why she did not scream. They implied that if she had, all the “middle class girls” downstairs at the house party would have have intervened, since there is no way they would tolerate rape. Character evidence for the accused told the court that they were all good guys, modest and helpful. In the aftermath of the trial, there were calls on social media for the woman to be prosecuted for lying, with one star gaelic football player asking for her to be “destroyed in the papers”, stating that “all ye feminists come at me, I’ll throw a kitchen sink at ya”. Another incident saw members of a Belfast football club posting an inappropriate photo depicting two of its players, posing with a trophy in a provocative position between them, pretending to be Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. This was presumably also for the purposes of banter.

For these reasons and more, this case has sparked outrage in Ireland and awoken some deep-seated anger at how the victims of sexual assault are treated in the criminal justice system, and by society in general. Protests were held up and down the length of Ireland on the day the judgment was handed down and in the weeks that followed. Placards of “I believe her” were held up outside the courthouse in Belfast, and yellow daffodils were tied to the railings. To be clear, the idea behind “I believe her” was not a statement against the jury’s decision, but that that the system was at fault. Protesters want an overhaul of the justice system, including a blanket ban on reporting of trials until the verdict, closed courts without members of the public, and greater attention to anonymity for victims in Northern Ireland. Donations to rape crisis centres increased in the weeks following the trial, and an advertisement was placed in a local Belfast newspaper urging the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby to bar Jackson and Olding from playing for either team again, with one of the organisers stating that the language the men used, “which was an undisputed fact, shows a deep level of disrespect for women”. When one Irish Senator tweeted his support to the woman at the centre of the trial, Jackson’s lawyers threatened to sue him, and anyone using the hashtag #IBelieveHer. As a PR move, it was a disaster, and in textbook “Streisand Effect” fashion (where the attempt to censor information from the public domain causes it to be publicised more widely), spawned the Twitter hashtag #SueMePaddy, and forced Jackson and Olding to issue further statements of apology to the victim.

Repeal the 8th Campaign at Dublin Pride 2016. Source: Irish America.

To many, the Belfast rape case has become emblematic of a wider problem in how women and victims of sexual assault on both sides of the Irish border are treated. It has exposed classic misogynistic traits, apparent not only in the sports world but in wider society, where toxic masculinity is seemingly excusable as ‘lad banter’. One only has to think of the Magdalene Laundries and forced symphysiotomies, to see that Ireland historically has an appalling record when it comes to the treatment of women. A report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 2017 found that current laws prohibiting abortion in Northern Ireland constitute violence against women, as well as state neglect when it comes to the lack of sex education. Treatment of victims of sexual assault is little better, with Northern Ireland no longer having a single dedicated rape crisis centre, despite the fact that 823 rapes were reported in 2017, and despite a 40% increase in the number of rapes reported in the past five years. Clare Bailey, a local politician from Belfast, pointed out, “I think this is Ireland’s collective #MeToo movement…the anger is palpable”. This case, coupled with the upcoming referendum in the Republic of Ireland on abortion rights, could mark a turning point for women’s and victims’ rights, both north and south of the border.

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