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Ulster rugby sponsors 'highly concerned' and reviewing partnership following Belfast rape trial

Paddy Jackson, left, and Stuart Olding were sacked by Ulster
Paddy Jackson, left, and Stuart Olding were sacked by Ulster

Ger Keville and Victoria Leonard

Ulster rugby sponsor Bank of Ireland has said it is 'highly concerned' and is reviewing its partnership with the province following the Belfast rape trial.

In a statement sent to Independent.ie, the bank confirmed it has conveyed concerns to Ulster CEO Shane Logan following the high-profile trial.

Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson (26) and Stuart Olding (25) were acquitted of raping the same woman at a house party at Mr Jackson's south Belfast home in June 2016.

Mr Jackson was also cleared of sexual assault.

Both players are suspended from Ulster pending an investigation.

During the trial details of crude messages via WhatsApp emerged which has led to widespread calls for Jackson and Olding not to return to the Ulster set-up.

"As a sponsor of Ulster Rugby, Bank of Ireland is highly concerned regarding the serious behaviour and conduct issues which have emerged as a result of the recent high profile trial," read a Bank of Ireland statement.

"The Bank has formally conveyed these concerns to the CEO of Ulster Rugby.

"It is of paramount importance to Bank of Ireland that our sponsorship activity aligns with and supports our core values, and reflects positively on Bank of Ireland through association.

"We understand that an internal review is underway. We expect this review to be robust, to fully address the issues raised, and that decisions will be taken – and policies and protocols be put in place – that fully address the issues that have arisen.

"Given that a review is underway, we won’t comment further on this issue at this time."

A rally calling for Ulster to address the behaviour of players will take place tomorrow evening ahead of the club's first home match since the Belfast rape trial ended.

The demonstration, entitled 'Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby', is being organised by Belfast Feminist Network and will take place before the team plays Welsh side Ospreys.

It is the second in a series of rallies organised by the group since the trial verdict was delivered on March 28.

Belfast Feminist Network said it was part of "a movement to change how our criminal justice system deals with sexual assault crimes".

Last week 139 people took out a crowd-funded advert in this newspaper to demand that Mr Jackson and Mr Olding never play rugby for Ulster or Ireland again.

The advert described the content of social media exchanges involving the pair as "reprehensible".

However, an advert in yesterday's Belfast Telegraph, paid for by fans of Ulster Rugby, called on the club to reinstate the two players to the squad.

The full-page advert, funded by more than 100 supporters, described "the social media backlash" against the men as "cyber prosecution".

During the trial the court heard about a series of WhatsApp messages in which Mr Olding said "we are all top shaggers" and "there was a bit of spit roasting going on last night fellas".

Mr Jackson wrote: "There was a lot of spit roasting last night."

Olding told the WhatsApp group: "It was like a merry-go-round at a carnival."

Belfast Feminist Network said its members were "still angry at the underbelly of sexism and misogyny that was revealed in evidence given during the recent trial".

It added: "This rally is not about the future careers of the players currently suspended.

"We are sending a message that there needs to be action taken by Ulster Rugby and other institutions to stamp out misogyny."

The group is calling for reforms to the criminal justice system in cases of alleged sexual assaults, including changes to media reporting, and wants an education programme on "consent and toxic masculinity" to be taught in schools.

It also wants "adequately resourced support services for victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse".

In a post about a placard-making workshop last night ahead of the rally at the Kingspan Stadium, the group said it had "some concerns about a confrontational attitude from a minority of fans, but equally we reckon there will be many who support what we're doing".

Commenting on the planned protest at the home of Ulster rugby, the PSNI said: "Police are aware and would ask anyone intending to organise a public protest or demonstration to contact local police at the earliest opportunity.

"This allows officers to work with the organiser to ensure that any demonstration is within the law, does not cause obstruction to footpaths or roadways, and that the health and safety of participants and members of the public are safeguarded."

Last night Ulster Rugby said: "The IRFU and Ulster Rugby have advised that a review process in relation to this matter is under way and it would be inappropriate to comment on any matter pertaining to that process until it is completed."

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