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Wednesday 16 January 2019

For the last nine weeks, the intimate details of a sexual encounter in 2016 has been the talk of every pub on both sides of border

For many people, the rugby rape trial wasn't about justice or news, it was entertainment, writes Niamh Horan

Stock photo
Stock photo
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

'Excuse me! Are you Blane McIlroy?" It was the end of another long day in the so-called 'rugby rape trial' and one of the defendants was leaving Belfast's Crown Court with his mother.

In the distance, a woman appeared; looking animated and coming straight for him.

"Are you Blane McIlroy?" she asked again.

He stood frozen.

She shook his hand vigorously: "I just want you to know we believe you, there are a lot of people behind you in this."

The public show of support, charged with emotion, could easily have gone the other way. In universities, reports emerged of female students crying in huddles following the unanimous 'not guilty' verdict on all charges for Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison. On Twitter, the hashtag #ibelieveher went viral. One man wrote that he was crying at his desk. Marches of solidarity for the young woman were organised in Dublin, Limerick and Belfast.

The cultural backdrop of the #metoo feminist movement, recent public awareness campaigns around sexual consent and the age of social media where online mobs trade in supercharged emotion and black and white opinion, were rocket fuel to a trial which already possessed the components of a sensational case.

Paddy Jackson was one of the most promising young rugby players in the country. He first developed a love for the sport as a child living in Birmingham. He returned to Northern Ireland aged eight, rugby mad and ambitious. When playing for his local team, the jersey was green but Paddy refused to wear it. Instead he insisted on putting on the official Ireland shirt. His mum asked coaches to give him a pass. She told them he believed he was Brian O'Driscoll and it would be best not to spoil the illusion. On his bedroom wall, Paddy tacked a poster of O'Driscoll in the Ireland kit. He cut out Brian's head and replaced it with his eight-year-old face. Just over a decade later ,his dreams would come true, stepping out for his big debut in the 2013 Six Nations Championship. Had the trajectory continued, Jackson could easily have been on the podium with the Grand Slam-winning team last month.

Then fate took a turn.

A night out with friends, a last-minute decision to go to a different venue. What followed was, what one court observer called, "the night that would never end".

For the last nine weeks, the intimate details of a sexual encounter in the early hours of June 28, 2016 and the contents of the four men's mobile phones have been the talk of every pub and coffee shop, town and city, on both sides of the border.

In one Belfast hair salon, the owner was forced to impose a strict ban on customers speaking about the case.

"It just got too much," she told the Sunday Independent, "the clients and stylists weren't talking about anything else. Women were coming in to get their hair done, who are close to people on both sides, and they had to listen to someone act as judge and jury in the seat next to them. Belfast is very small. It was all too close to home."

A few miles away, Paddy Jackson kept a clear head by going for long walks with his dog in the evenings after the trial began. He maintained his healthy diet and here was a man focused on clearing his name and getting back on the pitch.

Stuart Olding's father always sat in the back row of the court. A man in his 70s, he took the position where he could leave his crutch propped by his side. He explained how his son Stuart and Patrick (Jackson) were applying the skills they had learned in sport: "They are taking it day by day. They have that mentality from rugby," he said, "They've incredibly strong minds. They are strong lads. They'll get through it."

Details of blood-stained clothing, the presence and timings of erections and ejaculation and an internal medical examination of the young woman were all discussed at length during the proceedings. But far from recoiling, the country leaned in. For many, this wasn't about justice or news. It was entertainment.

One man in the public gallery made a 12-hour round trip from a remote area of Co Cork. A woman, keen to get a look, took along a young boy, who was no more than 12. When a journalist warned the evidence was unsuitable for children, she brushed off his concerns.

An 82-year-old woman became a familiar sight. She explained she had made the trek in each day because: "I am just fascinated with the legal argument itself."

How many trials had she been to in her lifetime?

"This is my first," she said. She would report back the proceedings to friends over their weekly coffee.

Then there were the new faces. Men, in particular, in an older age bracket, flitting in and out of the media box. Absent for the more mundane moments of the case, they appeared when the most intimate sexual evidence was detailed in the stand. A man in a trench coat sat to the left, another to the right, with his coat on his lap. Quizzed over whether or not they were media, their faces flushed and apologies followed, before they made hasty exits.

Throughout the trial, the four men regularly gathered with their families in a tight huddle in the hallway. Slight jokes or a hint of laughter were often shared. Some observers quietly expressed their distaste at their light-heartedness. They wanted to see suffering. But life had to go on and - in many ways - the four appeared to become acclimatised to the nightmare scenario of a long-running trial in which they were the defendants.

They were also resolute in their innocence. They walked tall to and from court, with their heads held high and shoulders back. They weren't about to put on a pity show for anyone.

On the day Patrick Jackson finally took to the stand, one of the defendant's family wondered if "a bus had just pulled up outside". Groups of female university students filled the public gallery and a queue formed outside.

Afterwards, Jackson was given gentle pats on his back from his family and a high-five from friends. An assurance that he had done well. He had the top criminal law firm in the country representing him. His solicitor Joe McVeigh had no interest or love of rugby. He was a fan of GAA and golf.

When Paddy Jackson approached him for representation, he didn't hesitate. A friend described his attitude towards taking on the case: "Joe wasn't there on the night. If a client is denying an allegation, then he is fighting it.

"He also doesn't care about how he is or isn't perceived in any of this. If there is a 'guilty' verdict, he will be working on the appeal the night the jury comes back and if it's innocent, he will be down in the police station working with the next client."

During the trial, the judge warned against 'fireside lawyers'. One of the men's legal team groaned about how much 'advice' he was receiving from members of the public. One man even advised him to watch a particular episode of Law & Order a US primetime show about court room proceedings, that he was certain would give him the edge on the case.

With open public access, at times, it was difficult to keep a sombre mood during proceedings. When Toby Hedworth, QC for the complainant, made a Freudian slip describing two 'virgins' of documents containing the boys' sexually explicit text messages [rather than 'versions'] laughter rippled through the benches. There was an audible chuckle too when Patrick Jackson described how the complainant wouldn't let go of his lip during the encounter that sparked the proceedings.

There was colourful commentary too. From the beginning the men were objectified. Women wondered who was the most attractive, who could they imagine themselves dating. But throughout the trial, the families of the four men kept a dignified and stoic demeanour, devoid of any emotion. Only on one of the last days - when tensions ran high - did a few exasperated words escape their mouths.

For the most part, however, they avoided eye contact with the media; as did their sons, save for a few occasions when the four men politely stood back and held a door open for people coming to and from the court.

In the canteen, they queued with the public for steak and chips and ate on tables side by side with journalists filing copy. Elevators at the court were sometimes awkward experiences. As keen-eyed reporters and legal teams from both sides packed into the small space with the families for a few quiet moments, someone usually tried to break the tension with a funny quip.

On one of the final days, Rory Harrison's mother rested her head against the elevator wall and closed her eyes, worry etched on her face. Afterwards, someone asked if she managed to sleep the previously night. "Eventually," she said.

Meanwhile, for the most part, the complainant and her family were kept out of view. During the trial, she sat in a separate room, listening to the proceedings through a speaker relayed from the courtroom. When she took the stand, she did so behind a royal blue curtain, shielded from the view of the defendants and the public gallery, but face to face with the judge and jury. Her image appeared on a large screen for the rest of the court to watch. When her evidence finished, she was never seen or pictured coming to or from court.

In Belfast, although everyone claimed to have the definitive background story to the trial, when asked, no one could give her name. Despite some quickly quashed attempts to expose her on social media, the justice system did well to keep it under wraps. The matter is being investigated by the PSNI.

A lot of rumours also surrounded the trial. But where to next is the question now on everyone's lips?

Without a criminal record, Blane McIlroy will be allowed to return to complete his interrupted studies in America. The rest of the men are free to stay in Ireland - but will they want to, given the lack of anonymity and vitriol surrounding the case?

Paddy Jackson has made no secret of his desire to get back in the Ulster and Ireland teams.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are innocent men under law, but will remain suspended by the IRFU and Ulster Rugby until a review committee has determined its findings. They have been suspended since July of last year after being charged by the PSNI.

It is clear that Ulster Rugby and the IRFU are under pressure. The large protests which have occurred since the jury returned their verdict may add to that pressure. Will that public expression worry sponsors?

Paddy Jackson's solicitor Joe McVeigh addressed the issue during his statement after the trial verdict and the two rugby organisations released a joint statement to say a review committee will look into the matter and "conclude its review as soon as practicable".

Joe McVeigh said he welcomed a review by the IRFU as it would "help Paddy Jackson get back on the pitch". He added: "Paddy Jackson is an employee, and like every employee he should respect his employer and he should open that conversation up privately with them.

"These types of reviews are legalistic in their nature. Inevitably, like anybody who enters into a review process with their lawyers, they're entitled to legal advice and I would hope the IRFU are open to let this type of review commence," he said.

A source close to the Irish team said: "An IRFU investigation will take place over the next few weeks. The organisation had a lawyer in court for the entire trial and that will form part of the evidence. Paddy will have to appear in front of a panel of bosses and they will hear his case. Until the findings of that are back, no one can say whether he will appear again in the Irish jersey or not."

It's a long way from the young boy tacking a poster of his hero to the wall.

Sunday Independent

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