Wednesday 22 May 2019

Neil Francis: My view is that the IRFU and Ulster review will not go well for Jackson and Olding

Paddy Jackson making a statement outside Laganside Courts in Belfast after he was found not guilty in court last week. Photo:
Paddy Jackson making a statement outside Laganside Courts in Belfast after he was found not guilty in court last week. Photo:
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The announcement of a verdict on Wednesday last in the Belfast rape trial, delivered after a period of time which surprised many, left both sides agitated and dissatisfied. Rather than concluding events, this not guilty verdict has set in train consequences which prior to this trial would have been unforeseen.

A grubby affair.

I suspect that if there was a new trial with a different judge, a new jury and different sets of legal counsel, the same verdict would be arrived at.

I also feel that if Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were not involved in the case, and instead two unknown young men were in the dock, then nobody from the Republic of Ireland would have known anything about the trial. That statement may seem obvious, or a little trite, but the flip side of that statement needs more than a cursory glance.

The trial had all the ingredients to catch the public's attention. Every lurid and sordid detail made it more compelling. Yet the reason it intrigued was not because it was Joe Bloggs and his friends, but it was somebody who played sport at the highest level on this island. It was somebody we knew well, somebody we had applauded and cheered on a rugby field. But more than that, it was somebody who had gone to a private school, had a privileged upbringing and lived what people on this island would consider a gilded lifestyle.

The fall from grace would be media gold. The trial would be nine weeks, the content 18 carat.

Disproportionate media coverage is given to the privileged if they do wrong. And it's a broad spectrum. From an unlawful killing outside Annabel's to a minor scuffle outside a D4 pub. The word inverse is suitable. If those incidents involved individuals from a socially or economically-deprived area, no one would know or care. William McFall from Northern Ireland was convicted of the truly horrific murder of a Vietnamese woman on the same day last week. It received a cursory paragraph or two. Surely the scale and depravity of the crime would warrant stronger coverage? Who is Paddy Jackson and who is William McFall?

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The first casualties in a show trial are balance, perspective and the sense of reality - no matter how hard a judge tries to impose reason on proceedings. Legal custom and precedent in the North dictated that the public would be admitted to the gallery. Given the interest there was no question that this would turn into a circus. It's a pity that the whole affair could not be held in camera to protect complainant and defendants.

To expect a young woman to bear up to serious and stringent cross-examination over eight days in front of a packed gallery is unfair and unethical. It demands a strength of character that not everyone possesses.

There were a lot of unsatisfactory elements to the trial but the law of the land was observed and the four defendants walked. What now?

Quite apart from the mental, physical and spiritual cost of the affair on both sides, it is the defendants who will lose financially. The cost is significant and despite being found not guilty, the four men will pay heavily for the quest to clear their names.

While Olding had some expense covered by legal aid which he was granted part way in the criminal proceedings, a trial of 40-odd days with a QC and junior in tow can cost from £10k to £15k a day. Average it out and there is not much change from £500k. You would also have to retain a solicitor since June 2016. Not cheap. My guess is that none of the men involved would have that sort of coin.

Of the rugby players, Jackson's contract would be in the region of £300k and Olding's a little over half that - at a guess. Both men were stood down once charges were pressed, they were entitled to the presumption of innocence, but it is not known if they were suspended with or without pay. The bottom line is that there has been, in addition to their trauma, financial wipeout. Some might say they deserved it.

The IRFU and Ulster review will be a very difficult situation and my view is that it will not go well for Jackson and Olding. Both players are contracted until June 2019. There are express conditions and specific codes of conduct in their contracts. Both could easily be found on review to have engaged in gross misconduct and to have brought the game and body into disrepute, the consequences of which cannot be ignored.

The IRFU have not covered themselves in glory in the recent past when awarding contracts to individuals to play for the provinces. Ricky Nebbett spent five months of a nine-month sentence in Wandsworth jail for the unprovoked assault of a librarian in 2000. Leinster signed him in 2004-'05.

In May 2013, a woman called Katie Lewis alleged that Ben Te'o seriously assaulted her. She made a formal complaint to Australian police but following an investigation he was cleared of any wrongdoing. Te'o left the following season and signed for Leinster before he departed for Worcester, England and the Lions.

At the start of this season, Gerbrandt Grobler, a known drugs cheat who received a two-year ban, was signed by Munster on a one-year contract. Not clever. Not good business. Not a good example. Do these people possess the sort of character that you would happily be associated with on a rugby team? What about the character of Jackson and Olding? Unblemished up until that fateful night in June 2016. All these individuals named were foreigners. They received the benefit of the doubt. Jackson and Olding are our own. What do we do?

Olding and Jackson have been found not guilty of the charges levelled against them but they have crossed a barrier. Irrespective of whether the IRFU want to retain their services or give them a second chance, I feel they will not have much scope here.

Rugby union is a professional game and money makes the world go round. Sponsors, whether anybody cares to admit it or not, have huge clout. The drill is simple - advocacy groups or pressure groups make representations to the sponsors. The sponsors look at the downside of maintaining their links with an organisation and the possible negative publicity and they either put pressure on the sporting body to cut ties or they walk.

Tiger Woods never killed or raped anyone, but his conduct was such that most of his sponsors set him adrift, and although this is purely my opinion, I can't see either Jackson or Olding being retained.

One of the things that piqued our interest in the trial was the whole concept of group sex, which is anathema to some if not most of us. Lest we forget that no more than two years ago, two very well-known Irish internationals had a threesome in a well-known Dublin hotel. The experience was entirely consensual and another couple present in the room chose not to participate but looked on. The issue here is that the world knows about that one - there may or may not have been a warning issued but there was no sanction and both players ply their trade in Ireland at an elite level.

The accounts over the last three months have been lurid and tawdry, but let's not kid ourselves that this type of behaviour is not widespread. Group sex is a common occurrence in this country.

There are more than 200,000 Tinder accounts in Ireland - with many engaging in casual, no-strings, detached sex. No accountability or responsibility. See-you-later sex. The concepts of respect or emotional attachment just doesn't enter into these types of engagements - it is, unfortunately, part of the human condition now. Particularly with our younger generation.

As an international rugby player, some of the things that happened in bedrooms or elsewhere before, during and after my time would make your head spin. The same can be said of the GAA or soccer or any sport or even any office environment.

A snapshot or audit of the island's sexual mores or activities would leave most of us aghast.

Of the million things that can happen in a bedroom - if the first thing or only thing you do is make your (plural) intentions absolutely clear from the start then perhaps we can avoid some of these situations. As we have seen, this is not a simple thing to express and as a consequence at least 20 people directly involved in the trial over last two months will never fully recover from a night that started just like any other.

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