How the ‘rugby rape trial’ divided Ireland The long read,
The long read After a trial that dominated the news, the accused were all found not guilty. But the case had tapped into a deeper rage that has not died down. By Susan McKay
The verdicts were unanimous and came swiftly. After a trial that had lasted nine weeks, with four defendants and multiple charges, the jury deliberated for just under four hours. On 28 March this year, Belfast’s largest criminal courtroom was packed to the doors – which were locked to prevent more onlookers from piling in. The jury foreman, a tall woman, stood up, and as the judge read out each of the charges, she replied: “Not guilty.”
The Ireland rugby player Paddy Jackson was found not guilty of rape and not guilty of assault. His team mate Stuart Olding was found not guilty of rape. Their friend Blane McIlroy was found not guilty of exposure. The fourth man, their friend Rory Harrison, was found not guilty of concealing evidence and attempting to pervert the course of justice.
Outside the court building on the River Lagan, the crowd pressed in, cameraphones aloft, as the men emerged. The trial had dominated the news in Ireland. The evidence had been sexually explicit, and had been debated heatedly, and in great detail, at bus stops, shops and bars and around dinner tables. The #MeToo movement was in full flow, and women from all over the island of Ireland were telling painful stories of sexual humiliations at the hands of men.
Men and women were appalled by the sexist attitudes the young men displayed in private social media conversations that had been aired in evidence. Others focused their anger on the judicial process. The complainant had to spend eight days in the witness box, being cross-examined by four sets of barristers, all men. Her bloodied thong was passed to the jury.
Yet others were outraged on behalf of the defendants, pointing to flaws and inconsistencies in the complainant’s evidence. The case should never have got to court, they said. They felt it was unjust that the defendants were named and photographed – almost every day, their photographs were displayed alongside shocking headlines. Their names and faces remain notorious, despite the not guilty verdict, and the whole process has been damaging to their careers. During the trial, the Irish rugby team – which incorporates players from the whole island – won the grand slam at the Six Nations. Eight months later, they
defeated New Zealand and swept the board at the World Rugby awards. It was the greatest year in Ireland’s rugby history – and Jackson and Olding missed it.
The verdicts would not lay this case to rest. Months after it ended, the “Belfast rugby rape trial”, as it became known, is still disturbing public debate in Ireland, north and south.
It was an early summer morning in 2016 and just beginning to get light when a taxi driver picked up two young people on Belfast’s Ravenhill Road. The young woman, the driver could see, was sobbing and leaning into the young man, her head on his chest, his arm around her, as they sat in the back seat. She gave her address – a house in a wealthy south Belfast neighbourhood. As the driver told the court, he heard the young man talking quietly on the phone: “She’s with me now, she’s not good. I’ll call you in the morning.” As the man walked the woman to her front door, the driver noticed her white trousers had a dark stain.
Soon after he dropped her off, the young man texted her. “Keep your chin up you wonderful young woman.” She replied immediately: “Thank you so much for leaving me home, I really appreciate it, you’ve been far too kind.” “My pleasure,” he responded.
The young man was Rory Harrison. They had met the night before, outside Ollie’s nightclub in the city’s fashionable Cathedral Quarter. It was late, the club was closing and groups of young people were surging out looking for taxis. There had been a lot of sportsmen in the club that night. Harrison, who worked in insurance, was with his old school friends Blane McIlroy, home from the US, and two rising stars of Ulster and Irish rugby, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who were celebrating the end of a successful tour of South Africa with the Ireland team, and the start of a month off.
The men were in their 20s, drinking in the VIP section. Jackson posed for selfies with fans. The young woman, who was 19, had just finished resitting her A-level exams. She’d been with friends – but after leaving the club, she ended up in a taxi with Jackson and others heading back to his house. She did not know any of them, and later couldn’t recall who invited her. There had been a lot of alcohol drunk, particularly by the men.
The townhouse Jackson shared with his brother was off the Ravenhill Road, where handsome Victorian terraces edge against poorer areas that still have loyalist flags and murals. The Kingspan stadium, Ulster rugby’s home ground, is nearby. It was a small party: Jackson and his three mates, the young woman, and three other women who had also been at the nightclub, Dara Florence and her friends Claire Matthews and Emily Docherty.
As the court heard, the young woman and Jackson kissed in his bedroom. According to her account, she rebuffed him when he tried to open her trousers. He denied this, saying that she got annoyed when he admitted he did not know her name. They returned downstairs.
Photos and videos shown in court gave glimpses of the party. There’s McIlroy grinning, manspreading on the sofa with the other young women draped about playfully. There he is miming sexual movements on top of Claire Matthews on the floor. There’s McIlroy with Olding. They have their trousers down, facing the other young women on the sofa, dancing in their boxer shorts.
In a text read out in court, the young woman said that the girls had got “slutty” and that she decided to leave. She is seen in one of the photos apparently putting on her heels. Then, she said, she went upstairs again to find her bag. Some time after, two of the women,
Dara Florence and Claire Matthews, decided to leave, and went to look for their friend Emily Docherty. They heard groaning, which sounded sexual, coming from one of the rooms. Thinking it might be her friend, Dara Florence opened the door.
Inside, she saw Jackson on the bed performing a sex act on the woman they did not know. Jackson’s rugby teammate, Olding, was lying on his back and the woman appeared to be giving him oral sex. The woman turned her face away. Jackson didn’t stop when the door opened. “Do you want to join in?” he asked. Florence said, “No, I’m OK.” He said, “Are you sure?”
As the court heard, Florence went out, closing the door behind her. “Oh my God,” she said to her friend, laughing. “I think I just saw a threesome.” Downstairs, McIlroy asked her to have sex with him. She rejected him, and the two women left.
In the morning, Emily Docherty woke up on a sofa in another room in the house. She had drunk too much, got sick and gone off to sleep before any of these events happened. She watched Game of Thrones on TV with the men, then went home in a taxi. She would later find a photo of a penis on her phone.
The day after the party , the young men were buzzing on social media. They were, variously, in several WhatsApp groups, and their messages were read out in court. In one group, Olding said there’d been an after-party and a friend, later identified as a fellow Ulster rugby player, responded: “Any sluts get fucked?” Olding replied: “Precious secrets” (a reference, he would say, to Lord of the Rings). He also boasted: “There was a bit of spitroasting going on last night fellas.” Jackson said: “There was a lot of spit roast last night.”
The young woman was also in touch with her friends that morning. According to evidence produced by the prosecution during the trial, she messaged one of them: “Worst night ever, so I got raped.” To another, she wrote: “So I got raped by 3 Ulster fucking rugby scum brilliant fucking night.” She said “a really nice guy” had brought her home. Her friends urged her to go to the police. “I’m not going up against Ulster rugby. Yea because that’ll work,” she replied. It would be her word against theirs, she said, and “they’ll have the same fabricated story about me being some slut who was up for it”, they’d say she was a “stupid little girl” who had regretted what she’d done. The young men had, she said, “that schoolboy rugby attitude times a million”. Her friends urged her to go to a rape crisis centre and to get medical help, and the morning-after pill.
Some of the messages between the men in various groups were deleted and could not be recovered, others were deleted but retrieved and read out in court. Harrison messaged McIlroy: “Mate no joke she was in hysterics, wasn’t going to end well.” Harrison received a message from McIlroy: “Really, fuck sake, did you calm her, where does she live?” Harrison wrote: “Aye, just threw her home and then went back to mine.” At 12.15pm the day after the party, the young woman replied to a question from Harrison: “To be honest no, I know you must be mates with those guys but I didn’t like them. And what happened was not consensual which is why I was so upset. Again, thank you for taking me home.” Minutes later he replied: “Jesus.” And then: “I’m not sure what to say.” After that there was no further contact between them.
Meanwhile, the men were planning lunch. Harrison wrote to McIlroy: “Mate the scenes last night were hilarious.” McIlroy replied: “It was a good night, I loved it.” Harrison wrote: “Walked upstairs and there were more flutes than the 12th of July.” The four of them met at Soul Food on the Ormeau Road, on the other side of the park from the Ravenhill.
Around lunchtime, one of the young woman’s friends drove to her house to bring her to the Belfast rape crisis centre. Her friend had been trying to contact the centre by phone, without success. As she told the court, she noticed that the young woman sat down in her car “gingerly”, and that she was emotional. They could not find the centre at its listed address – it had, in fact ceased to operate some years previously. They found the Brooke sexual health advice centre around the corner, just up the street from Ollie’s nightclub. The young woman told a counsellor she had been raped. He urged her to go to the Rowan, Northern Ireland’s dedicated sexual assault treatment centre. Another friend drove her there that evening and a doctor examined her and took forensic swabs. She was bleeding and the doctor identified a laceration in her vagina. On Wednesday morning, two days after the night out at Ollie’s, she called the police. The next morning, she made her first statement.
The young woman told police she had gone upstairs to get her bag from Jackson’s room. She did not know if he followed her or if he was already there. She said he pushed her on to his bed and pulled down her trousers from behind. He’d been “so rough, rough with me”. When Olding came in and began to undo his trousers, she said: “I was like Paddy please no, not him too.”
She said Olding had forced her head on his penis. The men denied these allegations. Jackson said he did not penetrate her with his penis, and both men said all of the sex was consensual.
During her long stint in the witness box, she described her feeling of panic, how she tried to block everything out. She said that when McIlroy entered, naked and holding his erect penis, he asked her: “You fucked the others, why won’t you fuck me?” She said she replied, “How many times does it take for a girl to say no for it to sink in?” Then she ran downstairs and out of the house. She said she had to run back in to get her phone, and at that point Harrison brought her home.
On Wednesday, McIlroy continued boasting on WhatsApp: “Spitroasted a bird with Jacko. Roasted her. Another on Tuesday.”
On Thursday morning Jackson and Olding were having another hungover breakfast. Shortly after midday, Jackson got a call. It was from his boss, Les
Kiss, then director of Ulster rugby. Kiss told him a “grave matter” had arisen and he was to go to Musgrave Street police station, and to contact a solicitor. Moments later, Olding got a similar call. Jackson signalled the waitress, and cancelled his order for pancakes. The party was over.
Later that day Harrison texted McIlroy: “Hopefully it will just get dropped. Just a silly girl who’s done something then regretted it. She’s causing so much trouble for the lads.”
The peace process and the Good Friday agreement of 1998 finished Northern Ireland as an international news story. Newspapers closed their Belfast bureaus and reassigned reporters. But at the end of January 2018 the “Belfast rugby rape trial” brought the press pack back. A section of the public gallery in Northern Ireland’s largest criminal courtroom had to be sectioned off to accommodate reporters. Around the corner, outside the high court, demonstrations by families of people murdered during the Troubles carried on, largely unremarked by those hurrying to “the trial”.
During the Troubles, Northern Ireland was an armed patriarchy. Victims of rape and domestic violence were expected to keep quiet. Feminism was largely regarded as irrelevant. Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK and Ireland that has neither marriage equality nor abortion rights. Today, rates of reporting of crimes of domestic violence and rape are rising. From 2016 to 2017, 823 reports of rape were made to the police. Out of those hundreds of reported rapes, there were just 15 convictions – a rate of 1.8%, the lowest in the UK.
For almost every day of the 42-day “rugby rape trial”,
Now that the trial was over, the rage that had been building up burst the dams of legal propriety
and for weeks after, the story made the front pages and the broadcast headlines on both sides of the border. These were men nurtured since early childhood for their sporting talent at preparatory and grammar schools, where skill at rugby is valued more highly than any other ability. Rugby has traditionally been the sport of that section of the Northern Ireland middle classes known as “garden-centre Prods”, suburban professionals who steered clear of politics but were solidly and securely unionist and with traditional social values. Throughout the Troubles, rugby fans travelled to matches in Dublin’s Lansdowne Road while lamenting the sectarianism that flared up around soccer games. In recent years, teams have been set up in Catholic grammar schools too.
After they were charged in summer 2017, Jackson and Olding were suspended by Ulster rugby and its governing body, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) for the duration of the proceedings. Jackson would miss his chance to play in the Six Nations championship, which started within days of the opening of the trial. During breaks, lawyers could be heard excitedly discussing the Irish team’s dramatic progress to victory. The court sat on the morning of the day the team won the grand slam against England at Twickenham.
The parents and families of the four accused men attended faithfully, often hemmed in by members of the public – some of whom made no secret of their enjoyment of the evidence, delivering crude reports on their phones during breaks, speculating loudly as to how it was going. There were occasional outbursts of anger and distress. When the complainant wept, one woman was heard to scoff: “Choking on her lies.”
Though the young woman’s anonymity was legally protected, her name was mentioned many times most days and was soon circulating on social media along with photos purporting to be her – and virulent commentary.
She had been “treated like a piece of meat”, she told the court. There was no part of her that had not been touched. She spoke of the physical strength of the two men. One of the defence barristers put it to her that she was “moving from truth to untruth, or falsehood and self delusion”. There were inconsistencies in her evidence, and she admitted her memories of the events were “slightly hazy”. Asked why she did not cry out for help, she said she “froze”. She described a sense of it being as if she was not there.
The defendants came and went from the courtroom with the public, and would with elaborate chivalry hold open doors and usher women out before them. The defendants all gave evidence, and were declared to be of good character by various witnesses. Witnesses testified to Jackson’s charity work on behalf of people with cancer and mental health issues, his habit of sketching superheroes, his willingness to pose with fans for selfies. A retired nurse told the court a story about how Harrison had helped her daughter on to a bus with a suitcase. He was, she said, “a perfect young gentleman”.
Jackson said the complainant led him on. He said he used his fingers “on her downstairs region”. He denied trying to force his hand inside her. “That’s disgusting,” he said. He insisted he did not force himself on her and that she did not have to stay. “It just happened,” he said.
The presiding judge, Patricia Smyth , issued repeated warnings about social media commentary throughout the trial, while also instructing the jury on a daily basis to stay away from reading it. However, while mainstream reporters stuck with legal reporting rules, the muffled roar from impassioned and highly partisan social media commentators persisted. One question posed by a defence barrister during his summing up provoked outrage. The barrister said: “Why didn’t she scream? … There were a lot of middle-class girls downstairs – they weren’t going to tolerate a rape or anything like that.” The leader of the politically progressive Alliance party, Naomi Long, posted on Twitter: “I genuinely have no words for how atrocious this statement is. ‘Middle-class girls?’ What? Because working-class girls wouldn’t care/don’t matter/think rape is normal? What is the implication of that comment even meant to be?”
Ultimately, the trial came down to the question of consent. The judge explained that the jury had to reach a verdict based on an understanding of consent in terms of “enthusiastic consent”, “reluctant consent” and “submission”, which does not imply consent. The forensics expert had also introduced the notion of “allowing it to happen”.
The verdicts were delivered on 28 March. Jackson and Olding were found not guilty of rape, Harrison and McIlroy of the lesser offences. The state had not proved its case beyond all reasonable doubt. The men were free to go. Outside the courts, Jackson’s solicitor read a strikingly angry statement: Jackson had been “entirely innocent”, he said, and the verdict was “common sense”. His client had been consistent in his denials, he said, unlike the complainant. He denounced the “vile commentary on social media” and in particular toxic content on Twitter that had “polluted” the process. Jackson’s priority now was to get back to the rugby pitch “to represent his province and his country”.
Olding had written a statement that was read out by his solicitor, markedly different in tone from his friend and teammate’s: “I want to acknowledge publicly that although I committed no criminal offence, I regret deeply the events of that evening. I want to acknowledge that the complainant came and gave her perception of those events. I am sorry for the hurt caused to the complainant.” He did not agree with her perception. He had told the truth. He was “fiercely proud” to have represented his province and his country, and wanted to prove himself again.
A young woman with blond hair stood silently on a low wall behind the thinning crowd. She was holding a small placard which read: “I believe her.” It was an echo of the hashtag that had been trending on Twitter during the trial. That day, Irish Labour senator Aodhán Ó’Ríordáin, using the hashtag #IBelieveHer, tweeted praise for the complainant’s courage and referred to the defendants as “smug” and “well-connected”. Jackson’s lawyers at the prominent law firm KRW announced he would be taking legal action for defamation. The senator took the post down and apologised, but protesters started using the hashtag #SueMePaddy.
Traditional media continued to state that they respected the verdict of the jury. However, the trial had tapped into deep and powerful feelings, and now that it was over, the rage that had been building up burst the dams of legal propriety. Many women and some men shared, publicly or privately, stories of sexual encounters with misogynistic men. People traded violent insults on social media. One woman tweeted that Jackson and anyone who supported him should “go fuck a bag of glass”. To the charge of misogyny was added racism after a photograph surfaced showing Jackson “blacked up” as a slave for a fancy dress event. A member of a regional football team tweeted: “Delighted for Paddy Jackson that tramp of a thing should be locked up now and for the girls that absolutely butchered him FUCK YOUS TOO SLUTS #justiceforpaddy.”
In the days that followed the verdict, feminists held hastily organised rallies, attended by thousands of predominantly young people, in Belfast, Dublin, Galway and Cork. There was an atmosphere of rage and distress. Protesters carried posters that said: “I believe her” and “I’d rather be sued than raped”. Women chanted: “Sue me Paddy.” Kellie Turtle, one of the organisers of the Belfast rally in support of the complainant, works for the Belfast Feminist Network. It wasn’t just about the verdict, she said. “People were just so appalled by the whole thing – the way some of the barristers used myths about rape, the aggression some directed at the woman when she gave evidence – and all this in a court of law. We felt that there was such rage and hurt among women that we urgently needed to create an outlet.”
A group of feminists placed a crowdfunded ad in the Belfast Telegraph calling for the rugby authorities to ban Jackson and Olding for their “reprehensible” social media exchanges. A group of Ulster rugby fans retaliated, taking out a front-page ad on the same paper, decrying the “cyber persecution” of men who had been acquitted of any crime. “We want these innocent men reinstated and rightly allowed to resume their roles for both club and country,” the ad said.
On 6 April, Jackson issued a new statement. The criticism he had attracted for “degrading and offensive” WhatsApp group chats was “fully justified”. He had betrayed the values he had been brought up with, “the most important of which is respect”. Several hundred women, unimpressed by his contrition, picketed the next game at the Kingspan stadium, demanding that Ulster Rugby: “stamp out misogyny”. A young girl accompanying her father to the match wore a T-shirt with the slogan: “I support Paddy Jackson.”
In April 2018 the Irish Rugby Football Union issued a statement. Citing its “responsibility and commitment to the core values of the game: respect, inclusivity and integrity”, it said it had reached a decision. Jackson and Olding were sacked with immediate effect.
Some of the sponsors of Irish rugby had made it known that they had observed the trial with disquiet, given the family and community values they wish to be seen to uphold. The Bank of Ireland had said it was “seriously concerned”, and was reviewing its relationship with the team. The rugby authorities had, in the aftermath of the trial, announced a review.
I sought out Belfast rugby fans to ask them about the case, and heard from men who believed in a brotherhood rooted in loyalty. Some of the men spoke of a “rugby culture” that included “good craic” initiations like: “running about naked or with a toilet roll on your willie, turning up bollock naked in shops … ”. They spoke of “girls who liked ‘sports rodeos’”. They spoke of “Ulster rugby sluts”. One man summed up the whole case like this: “Look, the boys had done well in South Africa. They were on a bender. These are hornballs. Their bags were full and they found a way of emptying them. It’s just banter and boys being boys.”
Those concerned with the impact on women from “boys being boys” took a different view. Noeline Blackwell, the director of Dublin’s rape crisis centre, said she had never called for the players to be sacked. The bigger issue, she said, was the indication that “the absolute lack of respect for women” shown by these men might be widely shared within rugby culture. She welcomed Irish rugby’s pledge in its statement on the sackings to review its education programme.
Shortly after the trial, the government appointed retired judge Sir John Gillen to conduct a review of the law and procedure on serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland. Feminists were warily hopeful when he said he was inspired by the #MeToo movement.
His preliminary findings were presented in November and are currently out for public consultation. Gillen recommended exclusion of the public from rape trials, and education starting in schools, for the wider public and those working in the justice system, on the realities and myths of rape.
“The report is extremely positive,” said feminist activist Kellie Turtle. The trial, as it is still commonly known, had brought about “such an outpouring of anger and emotion and solidarity all over Ireland”, she said, Gillen’s report brought relief. “It feels like he has listened to us and he is amplifying our voices, bringing them in from the margins.”
In the wake of the trial, the Irish government also announced a review of how its justice system deals with rape trials – in particular, how complainants could be better protected. Turtle said there was “an amazing sense of achievement” among feminists who had been campaigning for decades for change.
Pursued by a scattering of angry social media posts, Jackson and Olding had both got jobs by summer 2018 with regional rugby clubs in France. A senior figure in the Irish rugby authorities said they had not ruled out a return to the Irish and Ulster teams. A man in his 30s was fined £300 after he admitted naming the complainant on social media. Since the trial, the young woman has not spoken publicly. •
During breaks, lawyers could be heard discussing the Irish team’s progress to Six Nations victory
Paddy Jackson speaks to the media after being acquitted, March 2018
Protests in Dublin following the not guilty verdicts, March 2018
An I Believe Her rally in Belfast, March 2018
From left: Paddy Jackson, Stuart O Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison