Rugby stars, a boozy party and a verdict that sparked mass protests
‘It was like a merry-go-round’
FOR nine weeks the trial of two rugby players has been at the centre of debate in Northern Ireland – bringing unprecedented coverage and dominating social media.
Over 42 days, the case against Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding has played out in front of a packed 100-seat public gallery – and drawn what one of the defendant’s lawyers called a ‘vile commentary’ online.
On Wednesday the jury’s verdict of not guilty on all charges – returned after less than four hours – triggered protests on both sides of the border in Belfast, Cork, Limerick, and Dublin, as thousands declared: ‘I believe her.’
But the case itself centred on a party at Mr Jackson’s home in 2016 – at which Ireland rugby internationals Mr Jackson, 26, and Mr Olding, 25, were accused of attacking a 19-year-old.
Mr Jackson also faced a charge of sexual assault in the early hours of June 28, 2016 while Blane McIlroy, 26, was accused of exposure, and Rory Harrison, 25, was accused of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
Belfast Crown Court heard the woman had been with friends in the VIP area of Ollie’s nightclub in Belfast and, at about 2.30am, was standing outside with a small number of women when she decided to go with them to Mr Jackson’s home.
At some stage she and Mr Jackson went to his bedroom. Opening the case in January, Toby Hedworth, prosecuting, told the court: ‘She does recall that at one stage she was in that room and was consensually kissing him, but had made it plain to him that she would go no further.’
They returned downstairs and later she decided to leave ‘because the atmosphere changed’, returning to the bedroom for her bag. Mr Hedworth said: ‘She had not returned up the stairs with Jackson but he had followed her up and into bedroom, where he pushed her onto the bed before pulling her trousers and pants down.’
The prosecution alleged Mr Jackson raped her. Mr Hedworth added: ‘ He had not in any way sought her consent and indeed had used force to achieve his aim.’
The jury was told the woman did not try to fight off Mr Jackson but was ‘numb’. When Mr Olding entered the room, it was claimed she recalled saying: ‘ Please, not him as well.’ Mr Hedworth said Mr Olding forced her to perform oral sex while she was being raped by Mr Jackson. The jury was told a text message was sent by Mr McIlroy asking: ‘Is there a possibility of a threesome?’ Mr Hedworth said: ‘That was not replied to but at a point when Jackson and Olding were desisting from their attack, the door of the bedroom opened and McIlroy entered, stark naked.’
The woman’s evidence was heard over eight days, during which she was screened from the court, while the four defendants, who all Not guilty: Paddy Jackson, 26 denied the charges against them, each took the stand for half a day. The jury was told WhatsApp messages posted after the incident Not guilty: Stuart Olding, 25 gave a ‘true flavour’ of the men’s attitude. Mr Olding wrote: ‘We are all top sh***ers’, adding: ‘It was like a merry-go-around at a carnival.’ Witness Dara Florence – the only one in the house who had not been drinking – proved crucial to both the prosecution and defence cases. She said she had opened the door and seen what she termed a ‘threesome’ with no signs of distress.
But she also said she was ‘100 per cent’ certain she had witnessed Mr Jackson having penetrative sex with the woman – despite his denial this had taken place. Brendan Kelly QC, for Mr Jackson, put it to Miss Florence that she had ‘assumed’ this, but she told him: ‘I saw sex.’
Mr Kelly called her evidence extraordinary, telling the jury: ‘When people commit crime they tend to hide, they tend to conceal what they did because they don’t want to get caught.
‘What did these two violent rapists do when she walked in? They invited her to join in. Dara Florence is absolutely central to this case.’ Mr Olding said the oral sex had been consensual.
Mr McIlroy also said any sexual activity had been consensual.
The defence lawyers were criticised by women’s groups for comments about the accuser, whom they said had been ‘on a mission to party’ and went to the VIP area specifically to meet footballers.
Frank O’Donoghue QC, representing Mr Olding, was criticised for asking why the woman had not cried out, saying: ‘A lot of very middleclass girls were downstairs. They were not going to tolerate a rape or anything like that.’
At the end of the trial, one of Northern Ireland’s longest ever rape cases, it took the jury of eight men and three women three hours and 45 minutes to return the notguilty verdicts – sparking the wave of protest supporting the accuser.
‘I believe her’: Protesters gather in Belfast on Thursday to demonstrate over the not-guilty verdicts in the rape case