IRFU tackles fallout from Belfast rape trial
Introduction of sexual consent classes for all professional players broadly welcomed, despite some misgivings
The IRFU, in conjunction with Rugby Players Ireland, has introduced sexual consent classes for all professional players in the wake of this year's Belfast rape trial, the Irish Independent can reveal.
Advocacy groups contacted by this newspaper have broadly welcomed the initiatives, but have expressed some misgivings, chiefly that the IRFU sought to use an English consultancy firm, Gleeson Mills, to deliver the classes.
They were also keen to stress that, while welcoming of the IRFU's activities and their efforts to consult advocacy groups, more interaction might have been possible given their own expertise in this particular area.
The IRFU, who had already run several classes for their players in a variety of areas - not restricted to gambling addiction, alcohol and mental health - had planned to introduce targeted programmes based on the topic of sexual consent before the issues exploded into the public domain during the Belfast rape trial.
A jury found Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson (26) and Stuart Olding (25) unanimously not guilty of rape after a marathon nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court in March.
Despite the pair's acquittal, issues surrounding consent, alcohol use and a series of explicit WhatsApp communications provoked widespread anger and recrimination beyond the sport.
Both men subsequently had their contracts revoked by the IRFU after Bank of Ireland, a leading rugby sponsor, expressed concern at "serious behaviour and conduct issues".
Street protests were held throughout the country, while the media, new and old, were consumed with what the behaviour meant for society in general and rugby in particular.
In response, the IRFU pledged "to conduct an in-depth review of existing structures and educational programmes" to uphold their core values of "respect, inclusivity and integrity".
Rugby itself was now on trial. And before rugby could reach out for help, it had to begin to help itself.
"Before the Belfast trial we had looked at doing something on consent," confirms Dr Deirdre Lyons, head of the Player Development Programme at Rugby Players Ireland.
"Compared to five years ago, the use of social media and WhatsApp had ballooned so we had been looking at this before the Belfast trial.
"After the trial we had to, not drown out a lot of the noise, but establish what would work best for the players, one they would openly participate in.
"We didn't want to lecture them because that would be a knee-jerk reaction, a box-ticking exercise. It's broader than consent, it's attitude, behaviours, alcohol use, mental health. It's a lot bigger.
"The curriculum we have developed is not a one-hit exercise where they are in and out and we don't see them again.
"All the pieces interconnect, so it's actually having open and honest conversations with the players about what happened in Belfast and what happens in their sport. Rugby should be no different to society and its young players no different to other young people."
The IRFU were keenly aware that for all the success on the field, the issues prompted by events in Belfast exposed a rather different perspective of a sport which has so often attempted to seize the moral high ground.
"We absolutely felt we couldn't just focus on the winning of trophies, there are other elements," admits Aileen Bailey, IRFU HR Director.
"The IRFU really believe in the values we have and we want our staff and players to live those. It wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to the trial, but it did certainly focus our minds. We certainly believe that it is a societal issue, but we understand we have a role in that. We want to play our part in terms of that and that is why we were planning this. It was a difficult time and there were no winners."
The IRFU approached, and were approached themselves by, a variety of specialists, including Jan Melia (Women's Aid, Northern Ireland), Cliona Sadlier (Rape Crisis Network of Ireland), Noeline Blackwell (Dublin Rape Crisis Centre), Edel Hackett (Safe Ireland) and Ellen O'Malley Dunlop (former CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre).
The IRFU reported to us their satisfaction with the proposals, but when the Irish Independent followed up on this, Blackwell, for one, vigorously disputed a claim that she was "very satisfied", while there was also disquiet expressed about the use of the English consultancy firm, Gleeson Mills.
And, aside from the Women's Aid NI representative, who was not available for comment, there were conflicting accounts about the IRFU's re-engagement with the contacts. O'Malley Dunlop stressed that she had actually contacted the IRFU first in order to discuss the issues that emerged from the trial, and expressed surprise that her name would be referenced publicly.
"I approached them, they didn't approach me," she told us.
"My sons were involved in rugby and I thought it would be a good fit given my background. I looked at their policies and procedures, which were fine, and I suggested I work with them to make sure they were followed. I had to follow them up again a number of weeks later and they said they were going to do it in-house and they thanked me. I suggested there was an excellence training department in the Rape Crisis Centre.
"After your contact with me, I rang them to ask why they had mentioned my name because that surprised me. They said they engaged an English firm and that surprised me too, as an English consultancy firm wouldn't really understand the cultural context in this country.
"But they opted not to go with me and that was fine. That was my only contact, but I hope it works out and I presume they will continue to review their policies."
Blackwell, while also welcoming the IRFU's move, was less effusive about the manner in which it was implemented.
"They did not reach out to us, we reached out to them, months after the review was promised. They informed us they had brought in an English company to do some training, which certainly was not in our recommendation and it seems to be quite a short programme.
"We did not see any evidence out of that in terms of how their processes or culture has changed. I'm not saying it hasn't, but we saw no evidence of it.
"I don't think we could accept without question that we said at any stage that we were satisfied. We were there to explore what had been done and we came away hearing what they told us, without us endorsing anything."
These criticisms were put to the IRFU, who stressed that they only met Blackwell after engaging the services of Gleeson Mills.
"Our decision to work with Gleeson Mills was based on the content of their programmes, their experience and their expertise in the specific context of sport," the IRFU said in a follow-up statement.
The classes are interactive and role-playing features heavily. "It couldn't be a finger-wagging exercise, the players must own it," they said.
Augmenting the classes, Irish psychotherapist Richie Sadlier, a former soccer international who deals with similar issues among young males, has also spoken to the players.
English rugby players have already completed the education and the feedback there has been as positive as it has here.
"We have only heard positive reports from the sessions we conducted last year," according to Tom MacDowell of the Rugby Players Association, who also used Gleeson Mills.
English cricket, in which behavioural issues have emerged of late, used the company for one year, but have changed tack; the IRFU will continue to monitor progress too.
"We can't do the same workshop every year, we may use a different provider," says Dr Lyons.
"How do you know any programme will work?" notes Bailey. "But hopefully down the road we can see the impact of it."
"The main thing is they're doing something," stresses Hackett.
“Time will tell” in culture change
“We didn’t want to lecture them because that would be a knee-jerk reaction, a box-ticking exercise. It’s difficult to say now how it will be absorbed, but it’s a strong programme. Time will tell.” – Dr Deirdre Lyons, RPI.
“It wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to the trial, but it did certainly focus our minds. We certainly believe that it is a societal issue, but we understand we have a role in that.” – Aileen Bailey, IRFU HR.
“The main thing is that they’re doing something. It’s so important young men and women see sports people broaching this as an issue. It’s all about going back to the basic values of rugby on and off the pitch.” – Edel Hackett, Safe Ireland.
“You need a whole hierarchy to take responsibility, it has to go all the way up and down; you can’t just land it on the players because they are just products of that system.” – Cliona Sadlier, Rape Crisis Network.
“We did not see any evidence out of that in terms of how their processes or culture has changed. I don’t think we could accept without question that we said at any stage that we were satisfied.” – Noeline Blackwell, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.
“I hope it works out and I presume they will continue to review their policies.” – Ellen O’Malley Dunlop.