Fallout from Belfast’s watershed trial still to wash out

Two months after the acquittal of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the city is trying to move on

Nearly two months on from the end of the trial that saw Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding acquitted of raping a 19-year-old Belfast woman, it no longer dominates conversations in pubs and coffee shops.

On Thursday night, many of the young people out for the night in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter did not want to talk about it. “Can people not just leave it alone?” one man complains. “They’re not guilty. Can that not just be the end of it?” His female friend nods agreement.

Nevertheless, the reverberations continue. "People are definitely more aware of consent and those kind of issues, I think. I'd even be talking about it with my mam and dad, which wouldn't have happened before," says Amanda Pootes (24).

“My male friends, who wouldn’t usually pay attention to that sort of thing, we’ve been talking about things like when is a girl too drunk to go home with or, like, how you should talk about women or to women.”

‘A bit harsh’

Members of a stag party, some from London and some from Dublin, have sympathy for the woman involved, but for the men too. “Their lives are f**ked now because of a few texts. They definitely shouldn’t have sent them but their career is gone now...it seems a bit harsh,” says one.

Following the trial, which also saw two other men – Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison acquitted of lesser offences related to the alleged incident – Jackson and Olding had their Ireland and Ulster contracts revoked, partly because of the derogatory texts they had exchanged on WhatsApp – including much-condemned references to "spit-roasts" – about their sexual activity.

Some in Cathedral Quarter, however, ask if the debate surrounding consent was now going too far, with one man pointing to the LegalFling phone app where potential sexual partners tick a box signalling they consent before going any further. “It takes the romance out of it a bit,” he complains.

‘Upset and disappointed’

The effects of the trial on the complainant will likely never be known. She will not talk publicly. The only insight that exists is from the PSNI, who said after the trial she was “upset and disappointed” with the verdict but did not regret proceeding with the case.

The now 21-year-old is entitled to life-long anonymity, though she was named publicly on social media during the trial. The PSNI said they were investigating the matter, but it is understood no arrests have yet been made.

So far, the impact on the players has been more public. Early rumours linking Jackson to Clermont in France and Olding to Exeter in the UK were quickly scotched. Talk linking them to Sale Sharks in Manchester fell away, too, following a public backlash from the club’s season ticket-holders.

Their financial woes have mounted. The pair had to pay the BBC £20,000 in legal costs after a failed attempt to sue the broadcaster for breach of privacy. The BBC has reported the men being questioned by police 2016 before they were charged with any offence.

During his trial Jackson was not on legal aid. He paid his legal costs, which were well over £100,000 himself. Olding paid his costs privately until he was granted legal aid half way through the trial.

Legal costs

Both are seeking that the State reimburse their costs, but legal observers believe their chances are slim since the courts are always reluctant to grant a defendant’s legal costs where the charges were decided by a jury.

Lawyers for Jackson applied to Laganside Crown Court on Friday for the reimbursement of his legal costs. At the conclusion of the hearing Judge Patricia Smyth reserved her judgment until a later date. She said she was not able to say when she will issue her ruling due to "pressures of other work".

Jackson paid for the costs of his own defence during the nine-week trial as he did not qualify for legal aid. Those earning more than £375,000 a year are not eligible for legal aid. Laganside Crown Court heard he was earning significantly more than this. The court heard Jackson has already paid his legal fees with “considerable help from his parents”.

Olding is to seek his costs at a later date. He paid his costs privately until about half way through the trial when he ran out of money and was granted legal aid.

Blane McIlroy, who was acquitted of exposing himself to the woman, and Rory Harrison, who was acquitted of trying to cover up the alleged rape, are faring slightly better. Both have returned to work; both had legal aid during the trial.

During and after the trial, it was feared that the extraordinary attention paid to it would deter victims of sexual crime from coming forward in the future. Indeed, the PSNI, in one of the first things it said after the verdicts, urged potential victims to come forward.

Sex-crime reports

In fact, the number of reports of rape rose during the trial. Last February, there were 288 such sex-crime reports, compared with 258 in February 2017. In March, the number was 292, compared with 289.

The increases are slight and might be unrelated to the trial. However charities dealing with victims of sexual violence saw a massive rise in people looking for help, and this was unmistakably linked to the case.

“After the trial we had 14 or 15 referrals every day for two weeks. We normally get about four or five a day, so it tripled,” said Helena Bracken of Nexus, which works with survivors of sexual assault.

"When there is anything in the media involving rape or sexual assault we always see a spike. If there's a story line on Coronation Street we will get a spike. It's just the way it goes. After Jimmy Saville we had a 40 per cent rise."

Bracken said Nexus saw donations “coming in every five minutes” after the Belfast verdicts came in. The money is badly needed because the service has a six-month waiting list.

The longer-lasting effects of the case are still in doubt. After the verdict there were immediate calls for reform of Northern Ireland’s courts, such as free legal representation for complainants or a lowering of the burden of proof to increase the number of convictions.

Eventually, it was the authorities in the Republic who moved first. Minster for Justice Charlie Flanagan announced a review of sexual-assault trials, including whether further protections should be offered to victims. To this end he met Women's Aid and other groups last week.

Named during trials

Shortly afterwards, it was announced Judge John Gillen, a retired UK appeal court judge, would lead a review in Northern Ireland to examine not just the rights of victims, but the rights of the accused, too – particularly on whether they should be named during trials.

Next week, Gillen, who has a good reputation among women’s groups for the work he has done on domestic violence, will visit Northern Ireland where he will meet survivors of sexual abuse, among others.

However some are dismayed that Gillen is examining the rights of defendants, not just victims.

"I don't think that should be front and centre, not when you've got a conviction rate of 3 per cent," says Kellie Tuttle, a lobbyist for women's groups in Northern Ireland.

Politicians such as the DUP's Ian Paisley jnr have supported reforming the system so those accused of rape enjoy anonymity until conviction. But Clare Baily, a Green Party member of Stormont, thinks this would be a misstep.

“I’m really nervous about going the direction they did in the South. Our recent past shows us when people are named other victims then come forward,” she says.

Everyone agrees the trial was a watershed moment for complainant’s rights in the North, with some terming it “Northern Ireland’s #MeToo moment”, but, equally, they agree nothing much will happen while the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly is suspended. Judge Gillen is due to report by January 2019, but there is little optimism that Stormont will be back in operation by then.