Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty of raping a woman after an eight week trial
Irish rugby stars acquitted of rape in divisive trial
Two leading members of the Irish rugby squad were picking up the pieces of lives interrupted on Thursday after a jury cleared the men of rape in a high profile court case that divided opinion throughout the island.
Altogether four men were accused after allegations of rape by a woman who attended a party at the home of Paddy Jackson. Alongside Mr Jackson in the dock was Stuart Olding, another player for both Ulster and Ireland, as well as friends Blane McIlroy, accused of exposure, and Rory Harrison, accused of obstruction of justice.
The jury delivered unanimous not guilty verdicts after 3 and a half hours of deliberations. But emotions were so charged during the eight week trial, that the judge warned the public gallery not to interrupt the chairman as he read out the verdict. “Have respect for that,” Judge Patrica Symth said.
The trial coincided with one of the most successful years in Irish rugby. Ten days ago the team celebrated a clean sweep in the northern hemisphere’s premier tournament, the Six Nations championship.
However with people across Ireland gathered yesterday to march under solidarity banners – proclaiming #istillbelieveher --- with the woman who made the accusations, the Irish rugby authorities face a difficult review of Mr Jackson and Mr Olding status as members of the national squad.
Rugby in Ireland is something of an anomaly, in that the island is represented on an international level by a united Ireland team. The top talent from the north, and the republic play together defying a split that has long defined football and is rooted in politics.
“Irish rugby, quietly and unobtrusively, has succeeded in bridging the sectarian and cross-border divide in a manner which has eluded virtually every other facet of Irish life,” wrote veteran rugby journalist Derek Douglas.
Former rugby correspondent for the Irish Times Edmund Van Esbeck, went further ''Rugby is the only game where you will have the hard-case Unionist, maybe from the Shankhill, coming down to Lansdowne Road and roaring on the team shoulder to shoulder with the most rabid Nationalist.''
The alleged rape took place in the summer of 2016, just two days after Ireland made history by defeating South Africa in South Africa for the first time. All had been out in Belfast nightclub Ollies, a popular haunt for the Ulster team and its stalwarts, Mr Jackson and Mr Olding.
Much of the Ulster rugby community immediately rallied behind the accused. “She’s out for fame, and money”, said one fan in Belfast, who didn’t want to be named.
In Belfast, Ulster rugby is far more than a sports club, for many it’s a fulcrum of both the community and family, and text messages revealed during the trial appear to have bought that family image into serious disrepute.
The position Ulster Rugby enjoys in local society perhaps evident in a text message sent by the complainant to friends sent prior to going to the police, the complainant “No seriously, I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby because they’ll help.”
“Ulster rugby like to think of themselves as a family club, they have a family stand, and a family terrace – I’m an Ulster fan, but after seeing those texts I don’t want to see them in an Ulster jersey ever again,” Alison Forsyth, a law student at Queens University Belfast.
The trial dominated local news for its near ten-week duration, almost every day updates were plastered across the front page of The Belfast Telegraph. Debates in coffee shops, and even in pubs on Belfast’s largely Catholic Falls Road it was impossible not to overhear debates.
“It seems a lot of people are worried about the damage done to the accused’s reputations above all else” Elaine Crory, a university lecturer in Belfast, told The National.
As Ms Pearson added: “Ulster rugby is loved by many, and to think that people who are admired and celebrated are abusing their position like that is kind of disgusting in a way.“
Indeed, Mr Olding’s statement acknowledges the hurt underlying the case. “I want to acknowledge publicly that although I committed no criminal offence on the evening on June 28, 2016, I regret deeply the events of that evening,” he said.
“I’m sorry for the hurt that was causes to the complainant. It was never my intention to cause any upset to anyone that night” the statement added.
Whether or not the two men will ever pull on the Ireland or Ulster shirt again remains the issue of an internal investigation, but for many in both Ulster and beyond, the trial has shone a light on an ugly aspect of rugby culture they’d prefer to ignore.
Rape crisis bodies expressed concern that the woman had spent eight days in the dock. The rallies in all Ireland’s major cities on Thursday highlighted these fears. The senior police officer involved in the prosecution Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman said the woman was “upset and disappointed” but did not regret making the complaint. “This case has provoked much comment and debate. While we respect today’s verdict it should not deter victims of serious sexual crime from contacting police,” she said.