Inside Court 12: the complete story of the Belfast rape trial

Accused Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison not guilty on all counts

The four accused in the rape trial of Ireland and Ulster players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been acquitted of all charges

The four accused in the rape trial of Ireland and Ulster players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been acquitted of all charges

 

After 42 days, 30 witnesses, two snow storms, one Six Nations and three hours and 40 minutes of jury deliberations, the accused were acquitted on all counts. The following is a full account of what happened in the court room during this time.

The court

The large dock in Court 12 at Laganside is not designed for this type of trial. With 21 seats, including one for a security officer, it is more suited for the types of cases which used to be much more common in Northern Ireland – mass trials of paramilitary members. It was ideally suited to the 2011 trial of 14 suspected loyalist paramilitaries on a litany of charges in the so-called “Supergrass trial”.

Other vestiges of the violent past could be spotted if you look closely. The large room has no windows, save for some thin skylights set into a recess. The accused were patted down for weapons before they took their seats every morning. And journalists were warned they must not identify members of the PSNI’s Rape Crime Unit giving evidence in the case, despite their duties having little to do with paramilitary activity.

But Court 12, which has a public gallery that seats 100, is also the largest court in Northern Ireland and so was always going to be used for this trial; a trial which, in terms of public interest at least, has been one of the largest in the country for many years.

At one stage a TV producer noted, almost resentfully, that other big cases he’s attended, such as the Northern Bank robbery trial and the double-murder trial of dentist Colin Howell, would see, at most, half the seats in the gallery occupied.

Blane McIlroy leaves Laganside court after he was found not guilty. Photo Pacemaker Press
Blane McIlroy leaves Laganside court after he was found not guilty. Photo Pacemaker Press

On many days during the nine-week trial of Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, there was a queue for those seats.

There’s no one reason why the trial gripped people’s attention. The men’s celebrity status is the most obvious factor – Jackson and Olding both play rugby for Ireland and Ulster, with Jackson seen as having a bright future in the national squad. If the trial was in the Republic they could not have been named. However, under UK law defendants can be named from the point of charge.

But there were also other factors which contributed to the massive public interest. The evidence in the case, particularly the bawdy and derogatory texts exchanged between the men (“pumped a bird with Jacko last night, roasted her”), gave an insight into the laddish world of male rugby culture. And perhaps, most significantly, the trial came at a time when issues of consent and male entitlement are being discussed around dinner tables everywhere.

Complex charge

At first glance, rape, even gang rape, appears to be a very simple crime to consider, amounting to two factors – did penetration occur and was it forced. But the reality is more complex.

Most often rape is not a “whodoneit” but a “whathappened”; the majority of rape accused accept they had sex with the complainant but contend it was consensual.

Therefore jurors are faced with the daunting task of determining what was going on inside the minds of those involved. To convict a rapist they must determine first that the victim did not consent and second that the attackers knew she did not consent. And many alleged rapes involve little evidence of physical violence such as black eyes or defensive scratch marks.

As Northern Ireland’s most experienced medical examiner, Dr Janet Hall told the trial the “overwhelming” evidence is that most victims of rape do not fight back.

This means forensic evidence which, thanks to television shows like CSI, is seen by many as a magic tool for catching criminals is often of little use.

Like most rape trials, this case was about the word of a woman against that of a man – in this case four men. There was DNA, mobile phone data and even witness statements, but none clearly pointed towards either guilt or innocence and all were adapted by both sides to help prove their cases.

Of course, there were other pieces of evidence, many of them disputed, to assist the jury. Was the woman “staring” at Jackson during the night? Did she follow him upstairs or did he follow her? What exactly did one of other party guests see when they opened the door to Jackson’s bedroom? And what did Jackson and Olding mean when they boasted about “spit-roasting” the next day?

These were all important questions but for the jury, it boiled down to just one: “Who do you believe?”

The complainant

In 1999 the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act was introduced in the UK. It contained a raft of measures to protect “vulnerable witnesses” from the more daunting aspects of the trial process, such as having to look at the accused while giving evidence.

The act meant that before the now 21-year-old woman took the stand at the end of January, a royal blue curtain was drawn across the witness box. During her eight days on the stand she gave evidence from behind this curtain. She was able to see the judge, the jury and the lawyers but the rest of the room was obscured. Everyone could see her, though. A camera in front of the box transmitted her evidence to a videoscreen placed in front of the dock and the public gallery.

The woman is entitled to life-long anonymity and there are severe penalties for publishing her name. However, in the UK, unlike in the Republic of Ireland, the public is allowed into rape trials. It wasn’t long before her name was widely known and shared on social media.

Speaking confidently and precisely, she told the lead prosecuting counsel, Toby Hedworth QC, that on June 27th, 2016, she had finished her exams and was going out to celebrate. She had a glass of wine in a friend’s house before going to Ollie’s nightclub, a venue attached to the Merchant Hotel in Belfast’s fashionable Cathedral Quarter. There she met another group of friends and at one stage they found themselves in the club’s VIP area. It was a busy night; the Northern Ireland football team were in, fresh from the European Championships in France. Also there, although keeping a lower profile, were Jackson, Olding, McIlroy and Harrison. Jackson and Olding were celebrating, having just returned from a tour of South Africa with the Irish squad.

Outside the club the woman ran into a friend of a friend and they got chatting. It was suggested that an after-party was happening. She did not recall hearing whose party it was or where it would be.

Ireland rugby player Stuart Olding outside court after he was found not guilty of rape. Photograph Pacemaker Press
Ireland rugby player Stuart Olding outside court after he was found not guilty of rape. Photograph Pacemaker Press

The woman said she got into a taxi containing Jackson and three other women. According to her evidence, the taxi had been booked by someone else but Jackson told the driver “I’m Paddy Jackson” and the driver responded “get in” Jackson later said he would never do this.

The woman said after arriving she soon realised it wasn’t much of a party, just some people dancing and drinking. She said she did not “have a clear recollection” but at one point she went upstairs to Jackson’s bedroom.

There, at Jackson’s instigation, the two kissed consensually, she said. He then tried to undo her trousers but she told him she was not interested and the two returned downstairs.

She told counsel that shortly afterwards she decided to leave because she sensed “the attitude had shifted” at the party. She said McIlroy was taking photographs and putting some of the women on his knees. She went looking for her bag, finding it upstairs in Jackson’s bedroom.

Jackson followed, she said, and grabbed her trousers, pulling them down to her knees. She said she froze as Jackson pushed her down on the bed and with her tight trousers caught at her knees, she couldn’t move. “I was face down on the bed and he was having sex with me.”

Jackson knew she did not want it to happen “but he kept going”, she said.

Then the door opened and Olding walked in. “My heart just sank. I knew what was going to happen. I looked Patrick Jackson straight in the eyes and said ‘please no, not him as well’.”

By this stage, the woman was struggling to hold back tears in the witness box. She said the next thing she knew her trousers were off and Jackson was having sex with her from behind while Olding was forcing her to give him oral sex.

At this point the door opened and she heard a female voice. The jury would later hear this was Dara Florence, a key witness in the case.

The woman turned her head away because she feared, with all the photographs being taken downstairs, that she might be filmed. Jackson asked this other woman did she want to stay but Florence said no and shut the door. Jackson then tried to force his entire hand into the woman, she said, adding that by this stage she was bleeding heavily from her vagina.

Then McIlroy entered the room completely naked and holding his penis as if he were masturbating, she told counsel. “I thought this is not happening again,” she said.

She immediately got off the bed and grabbed her clothes. She put her trousers on and her underpants in her pocket. She said McIlroy said to her: “You f***ed the other guys, why won’t you f**k me?”

She told McIlroy: “How many times does it take for a girl to say no for it to sink in?”

Rory Harrison leaves Laganside court after he was found not guilty. Photo Pacemaker Press
Rory Harrison leaves Laganside court after he was found not guilty. Photo Pacemaker Press

She ran downstairs and Rory Harrison came out after her and asked was she okay, she said. Harrison would have seen blood on her trousers, she said.

He dropped her home in a taxi and soon after she got a message from him saying something like “keep my chin up”, she said.

The following morning she sent Harrison what turned out to be the most important text in the entire trial: “what happened last night was not consensual.”

She also texted her friends telling them she had been raped by “3 Ulster fucking rugby scum” but refused to go to the PSNI when they urged her.

“You just don’t think they are going to believe you. I really did not want to take things further because you are so embarrassed... I did not want people finding out,” she told counsel.

She arranged to get the morning-after pill because, she said, she did not know if a condom was used during the alleged assault. She also underwent a forensic medical examination.

She said she thought the assault had prompted an early period but that the doctor examining her told her she had an “internal tear” and that was why she was bleeding.

The following day she decided to go to police.

Explaining this decision, she said: “The more I thought about it, rape is a game of power and control. They rely on your silence. The only way you take the power back is when you actually do something about it. I may be preventing it happening to someone else.

“It could so easily have been my friends outside Ollie’s. It could have been my sister outside. It was the best decision I made.”

Cross-examination

Her evidence to the prosecution lasted one day. Like in any other trial, the defence then got an opportunity to cross-examine. Four defendants meant four cross-examinations. In total, she was in the witness box for eight days, although not all were full days.

Her evidence was interrupted when the defence requested the jury visit the scene of the alleged rape, an unusual but not unheard of request in a trial. Only the judge, jury and one lawyer from each side were allowed attend. The media were not permitted and were even forbidden from reporting the visit would take place ahead of time for fear of a crowd forming outside Jackson’s house.

When jurors arrived they were split into groups of two and permitted to walk freely around the house.

Back in the witness box, the woman was first cross-examined by Brendan Kelly, the eloquent and charismatic Queen’s Counsel drafted in from London to represent Jackson. Described by his chambers as “a phenomenal court presence”, Kelly specialises in white-collar crime but has significant experience in other types of serious criminal work. He acted for the defence in the UVF “Supergrass” trial and also represented the murderer of five-year-old April Jones in a high-profile case in 2013.

Almost immediately, Kelly, speaking in a mild Lancashire accent, focused in on the themes he would elaborate on throughout the trial. He put it to the woman that she knew exactly who Jackson was and was interested in him from the beginning. He also grilled her on what he said were her inconsistent accounts of the night in question.

Kelly implied the woman was not just after Jackson but that any celebrity would do. He played CCTV footage from Ollie’s nightclub which appeared to show her briefly touching the knee of footballer Kyle Lafferty and momentarily holding onto the arm of his teammate Will Grigg.

Regarding Jackson, she denied “watering down” the extent of her previous knowledge of rugby players. “I don’t follow Ulster rugby, I don’t follow Irish rugby either.”

She told Kelly: “We didn’t go into that VIP area to meet Ulster rugby players, if that’s what you are insinuating.”

Asked if she was attracted to celebrities at the time she said: “No. I didn’t know who these people were.”

Kelly also asked her why she didn’t tell her friends she had been orally raped by Olding when she texted them the next morning about the alleged rape. She said she did not feel the need to “explain every single demeaning thing that I had been through”.

Asked was it because her friends might not believe her, she replied: “Not at all.”

Why didn’t she mention oral rape to the medical examiner at the Rowan Clinic that evening, Kelly asked.

She said at that stage she “did not think oral sex constituted as rape”. She agreed her account was “not as complete as it could be”, but repeated she had not left out details “on purpose”.

Kelly cross-examined the woman for three days during which he suggested she was “fixated” with Jackson that night. He put it to her she claimed she was raped because she was “petrified” her friends would see pictures or hear rumours of her having group sex with Jackson and Olding.

The woman, not visibly emotional any more, rejected all these suggestions. At one point Kelly asked for the clothing, including the underwear she was wearing that night, to be shown to the jury.

The blood-stained garment was passed to the woman, the judge and the jury for examination before Kelly put it to the woman she had been bleeding before the alleged attack.

“That is completely incorrect,” she said, adding a doctor who examined her confirmed she suffered an internal tear during the alleged rape.

Next up to cross-examine was Frank O’Donoghue QC for Stuart Olding. Cutting a slightly gruffer figure compared to Kelly, O’Donoghue specialises in commercial law and white-collar crime but also regularly acts in criminal trials (“He is very good at putting people at ease and is generally very nice,” according to Chambers UK).

He stuck to most of the same points as Kelly, and focused on what she told the doctor at the Rowan Clinic that Olding had vaginally raped her. O’Donoghue took the opportunity to remind the woman and the jury his client was not accused of vaginal rape but of a sole count of oral rape.

The complainant said it should not be under-estimated that when she underwent the medical examination she had not slept for 30 hours and that she was in an emotional state.

She said she had assumed she was vaginally raped by both men and at different stages of the assaults both men were behind her where she could not see them.

The jury heard later that his client was originally charged with vaginal rape until the Public Prosecution Service dropped the count shortly before Christmas 2017.

Rory Harrison’s lead barrister, Gavan Duffy, has extensive experience in sex-crime cases and had appeared before the judge in the trial, Patricia Smyth, several times for clients accused of rape. Perhaps that is why he spoke so little during the trial. His cross-examinations of witnesses were generally brief and, unlike his colleagues, he rarely got to his feet to object to a piece of evidence or line of questioning. On occasion, Judge Smyth would get slightly but visibly annoyed with the other lawyers’ objections but she rarely clashed with Duffy.

In cross-examining the complainant, Duffy was in an odd position. She had made no allegation against his client Rory Harrison. In fact, the opposite was true. She told the jury: “I have no complaint with him. He took me home and I am grateful for that.”

It was the police who alleged Harrison impeded their investigation by being evasive and withholding information. Perhaps this was why Duffy’s cross-examination was significantly gentler than the others.

Like Kelly, Duffy put it to the woman she had been staring at Jackson that night and had followed him upstairs at one point. “I do not recall ever staring at Mr Jackson,” she said. On the point of her following Jackson upstairs, she replied: “He could well be right about that but he is also sitting in the dock.”

Last to cross-examine was Arthur Harvey, a well-known Northern Irish Queen’s counsel who, with the help of his barrister son, represented several victim’s families at the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday massacre. Representing some of the other families there was barrister Patricia Smyth, before she was made one of the few senior female judges in Northern Ireland.

Harvey’s client, Blane McIlroy, was charged with the least serious count on the indictment, that of exposure which carries a maximum term of two years in prison. Yet the barrister was unquestionably the toughest in his cross-examination.

He questioned the woman on inconsistencies in her account of what McIlroy did. She had told the court he was naked when he entered the bedroom but told a doctor previously he came into the room and then lowered his trousers.

Explaining the inconsistency, the woman said she was still trying to process what had happened when she spoke to the doctor on the day of the rape. “You go into shutdown, it’s incredibly hard to state what happened until you’ve actually processed it.

Harvey asked, in suspicious tones, why the woman used the impersonal “you” in this statement. “You’ve said this before. It’s almost as if you’re repeating something you’ve read rather than your personal experience,” he suggested.

In doing this he was attempting to use the woman’s eloquence against her. Throughout her cross-examinations she confidently put the experience of a rape victim into words. “In that situation you don’t scream or shout because you are so scared,” she told Kelly at one stage. “You underestimate the state of shock you go into after being raped,” she told O’Donoghue.

She was speaking in soundbites, Harvey was implying; repeating lines she’d read in newspaper article or seen on a TV show like Law and Order.

For the first time the woman seemed angry: “I’m not going to argue with you over grammar. You’re not putting words in my mouth”.

Social media and Rory Best

A few days into the cross-examination social-media users, particularly on Twitter, began to express horror at what they saw as the interrogation of a rape victim for eight days. The hashtag #Ibelieveher started to trend and a fundraising page was started to raise money for flowers to be sent to the woman at the courthouse (care of the prosecution). In total, €5,032 was raised with most of it going to Women’s Aid and rape crisis organisations.

The appearance of Ireland rugby captain, and Jackson and Olding’s teammate, Rory Best in the public gallery during the woman’s cross-examination only added to the online anger.

When Best turned up with Ulster teammates Iain Henderson and Craig Gilroy their photographs walking into Laganside courthouse quickly spread around the internet.

Best, along with former Ulster player Ruan Pienaar and mixed martial arts champion Leah McCourt, had been asked to appear as character witnesses for Jackson (calling character witnesses during a trial is unheard of in the Republic but is permitted in Northern Ireland).

The furore over Best’s appearance was amplified by the fact Ireland were in the middle of a Six Nations campaign and due to play France that week. During the game some fans held up a Tricolour emblazoned with the words “I Believe Her”. Online, the hashtag #notmycaptain began to trend.

After the game Best defused the situation somewhat when he stated he “was advised that it is important that I got both sides of the story so I could make an informed decision about [being a character witness].

The jury were told the following week that Best had been instructed to attend by the defence.

In the end none of the well-known names appeared as witnesses. Instead Jackson’s former Ulster teammate Declan Fitzpatrick, his brother’s partner and a family friend, gave evidence of his good character.

Throughout the trial both the prosecution and defence kept a close eye on both traditional and social media, looking for any commentary which could influence the jury. There were some raised eyebrows when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar briefly alluded to the trial during a radio interview on the issue of abortion in cases of rape. On this occasion the lawyers decided not to raise it in court.

The six women

After the complainant gave evidence she requested permission to view the rest of the trial via videolink from another room in the complex. This was granted and for the next six weeks the start of the day’s evidence was signalled by the sound of a phone line dialling into the woman’s room.

The next six witnesses comprised the three other women who were in the house that night and the three friends of the complainant who she confided in the next day.

Of the three women who attended the party, by far the most important was Dara Florence, a young woman who had met McIlroy outside Ollie’s and decided to go back to the house with her two friends.

At about 4am, she and her friend Claire Matthews decided to leave and were trying to find their friend Emily Docherty when Florence went upstairs and heard moaning noises coming from a bedroom. She said she entered the room and saw Jackson having sex with the complainant who had her head somewhere around Olding’s “middle.”

Florence said Jackson asked her if she wanted to join in and she said no and closed the door. She told the trial she walked in on a threesome, not a rape, and there was nothing about what she saw to indicate a lack of consent on the part of the complainant. She added there was also nothing to indicate “positive consent” either.

While initially her evidence appeared very helpful to the defence, there were aspects which also assisted the prosecution case. Florence said she was “100 per cent” sure Jackson was having intercourse with the woman, although she conceded she did not see his penis. Jackson denied any vaginal sex took place.

Three of the complainant’s friends gave evidence she had contacted them the next day to tell them she had been raped. “I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea because that’ll work,” the complainant texted one of the witnesses that morning.

Asked by counsel why she wouldn’t go to police, the friend replied: “Because of what’s happening in this room. It’s daunting, quite horrible and you get blamed. It’s a distressing process.”

The trial also heard from Stephen Fisher, the taxi driver who picked up Harrison and the woman near Jackson’s house.

“The young woman definitely seemed very upset. She was crying-stroke-sobbing throughout the journey,” he said.

Fisher said Harrison was on the phone to a person at one point (this was later confirmed to be McIlroy) and seemed to be speaking “in code”.

He said he remembers Harrison saying: “She is with me now. She is not good. I’ll call you in the morning.”

The jury also heard medical evidence of the woman’s injuries when she presented at the Rowan Clinic. Giving evidence for the prosecution, Dr Philip Lavery said the most significant injury was a laceration to the woman’s vaginal wall which was still bleeding when she attended at the clinic on the evening after the rape.

Dr Janet Hall, appearing for the defence, said she examined Dr Lavery’s notes along with a video of the woman’s vaginal examination and determined it was not possible to state with certainty the blood came from an injury and not from menstruation.

Both doctors disagreed on the injuries to such an extent that at one stage there was a concern the video of the vaginal examination would have to be shown to the jury. In the end this was avoided and the conflicts were dealt with through the doctors’ evidence.

Overall the medical evidence was of little benefit to jurors one way or the other. Both doctors agreed the injuries did not prove penile penetration or a lack of consent. Furthermore, most sexual assaults do not result in injury, Dr Hall said.

The DNA evidence was similarly unhelpful. Olding’s DNA was found in several places but this was largely consistent with his evidence that he ejaculated after the oral sex.

The texts

The prosecution concluded its case by reading the texts exchanged between the men on June 28th, 2016, some of which had been deleted and later recovered. Jackson, Olding and McIlroy were members of a WhatsApp group called JACOME, the jury heard. The name comes from their initials and the initials of other friends not before the court. In the group, Jackson and Olding boasted about “spit-roasting” the woman.

This word was a point of contention in the trial. The defence maintained “spit-roasting” could mean any sexual activity involving two men and a woman while the prosecution suggested it very specifically means a woman penetrated orally and vaginally by two men at the same time.

To prove this the prosecution had hired an expert in slang language to write a report on the exact meaning of the word, although this was never presented in court.

Just before noon on June 28th, McIlroy had asked in a message: “What the f*** was going on? Last night was hilarious.” A subsequent message was not recovered, however McIlroy followed that up with: “really f*** sake” and “Did U calm her and where did she live.” Harrison immediately replied; “Mate no jokes she was in hysterics” and “Wasn’t going to end well.”

Other messages gave an insight into the highly chauvinistic tenor of the men’s conversations. “Any sluts get fucked?” one friend asked Olding that day. “Pumped a girl with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her. Then another on Tuesday night,” McIlroy texted another person.

And “love Belfast sluts”– a text from McIlroy attached to a picture of Dara Florence and her two friends taken at the party. Those were the texts heard by the jury.

The texts were banter and immature boasting according to the defence, the words of young men who were egging each other on. O’Donoghue, for McIlroy, called them “a titillating sideshow” with no evidential value. For the prosecution, they were evidence of a complete lack of respect for women.

The men take the stand

In the Republic it’s relatively rare for defendants to decide to give evidence in their own defence. While taking the stand allows the accused an opportunity to give their version of events in their own words, it also gives the prosecution the chance to grill them on the weakest aspects of that account. It’s generally not worth it, especially since the jury is specifically instructed it cannot draw any adverse inference from an accused’s choice not to give evidence.

The dynamic is slightly different in Northern Ireland. Juries are told they can take an inference from a defendant’s choice not to give evidence. And if they do take the stand, the jury is instructed that this supports their credibility.

Hence it is more common for defendants to give evidence in the north. All four men gave evidence in the trial, and were some of the last witnesses heard by the jury.

Jackson’s appearance was keenly anticipated, particularly after his evidence was delayed for several days due to the weather and a juror’s illness. When he did take the stand the court was full to the extent that minor arguments were breaking out over seats in the gallery.

He spoke calmly and seemed at ease in the box, even when sharply questioned by Hedworth. When he was describing his rugby career (25 caps for Ireland) and his hobbies (drawing superheroes and miming to rap songs), he sounded like he was giving a post-match interview.

According to Jackson he was kissing the woman in his bedroom until she asked him what her name was. He couldn’t tell her. This caused the mood to change and both returned downstairs.

Later he went back up to his room and she followed. They started kissing again before she performed oral sex on him, he said. At this point Olding opened the door and Jackson waved and smiled at him.

“It was a bit embarrassing. I kind of smiled at him and waved at him. It was stupid,” Jackson said.

He said Olding entered and the woman performed oral sex on him too while he moved to the end of the bed and started touching her vagina with his fingers. He saw there was blood but assumed it was from her period, he said.

He denied trying to force his fist inside the woman, calling the accusation “revolting” and “disgusting.”

He said he thought events were leading to penile penetration and the woman asked for a condom but he couldn’t find one. She left some time later and did not seem upset.

Olding was next to take the stand. He said he went upstairs to go to bed. He opened the door to Jackson’s room and saw the woman “straddling” Jackson and kissing him.

Nothing was said but she beckoned him over with her hand before performing oral sex on him. This continued for about five minutes until he ejaculated. He then left and went to sleep elsewhere.

Up next was McIlroy. His evidence was perhaps the most confusing in the trial. He was accused of exposure in that he entered the room naked, thrust his penis at the woman and asked for sex. No sexual activity with the woman was alleged.

However, McIlroy claims he entered the room to find the woman and Jackson lying naked on the bed, McIlroy having earlier sent a text asking “is there any possibility of a threesome?” He said Jackson asked him to come in for a chat which led to him kissing the woman and her performing oral sex on him. The woman said this didn’t happen and both Jackson and Olding said they never saw him in the room.

Hedworth reserved his most ruthless cross-examination for McIlroy and took his time grilling him about the major discrepancy. The barrister suggested the men had got together at a cafe the next day to “circle the wagons” and engage in a cover-up.

By this stage they knew the woman was alleging rape and they needed to get their stories straight, he said. Counsel said each man was assigned a fabricated story about their actions that night but McIlroy got mixed up and when interviewed by police he gave the account Olding was supposed to give. It became known as the “circle-the-wagons theory”. The accused rejected it, insisting the woman had performed consensual oral sex on him.

Asked about the text messages exchanged over the subsequent days, all three men said they were embarrassed by what they had said but that they were engaging in juvenile bravado. In an effort to explain why he sent a text saying he had “roasted” the woman, McIlroy agreed he has a reputation as someone who “talks shite”.

Harrison was the last to give evidence. He agreed he received a message from the woman stating “what happened last night was not consensual”, but said he didn’t believe her and this was why he didn’t inform Jackson about it. He said he didn’t want to worry him as he thought the woman had just done something which she regretted.

He agreed the woman was upset when he dropped her home but said he assumed it was because Jackson had “rejected” her.

Hedworth put it to him that he had used “weasel words” to try calm the woman so she wouldn’t go to the police.

Counsel also asked why he didn’t disclose the “not consensual” text to police in his initial witness statement which was taken two days after the alleged rape.

“They didn’t ask about it,” Mr Harrison replied.

Counsel asked if he treated his initial statement to police as “a verbal fencing match” where he only told the police what he had to.

“I answered the questions I was asked,” Harrison replied.

On the subject of the messages which were deleted and later recovered, Harrison said his phone broke the following month and all his messages were wiped when he tried to get it fixed.

Each man looked relieved when they finished giving evidence, with some hugging their families afterwards. But as the trial entered its seventh week tempers were wearing thin.

The lawyers and even the judge began to look as if they would rather be anywhere else and clashes over legal matters became more frequent.

The jury were also showing signs of strain, appearing more tired and drawn than in earlier weeks. The trial was scheduled to last five weeks. By the time it reached week nine two jurors had already fallen ill, with one recovering and one being excused permanently. Another juror had a cruise booked which they were forced to postpone at the urging of the court.

As the judge prepared to send the jury to deliberate, the accused men looked similarly exhausted. Harrison, who earlier in the trial was spotted outside giving a solicitor the use of his umbrella during the inclement weather, clashed with a photographer as he was leaving court.

The overrun was causing financial problems too. Olding had run out of money to pay his legal team about half way through the trial and had to apply for legal aid which Judge Smyth agreed to grant.

Deliberations

After 41 days, 30 witnesses, two snow storms and one Six Nations, the jury was finally sent away to deliberate. People settled in for the long haul, reasoning it would take the jury at least a few days to wade through eight weeks of evidence.

This assumption seemed to be confirmed when the jury were sent home for the night after the first day of deliberations. But just after noon on Wednesday the word went around; a verdict was imminent.

The accused, lawyers and press rushed back to the courtroom to take their seats. The doors in the public gallery were locked and Judge Smyth warned those who had made it into court that any outburst would result in their expulsion from the room entirely.

After three hours and 40 minutes of deliberations the verdicts came back. Not guilty on all counts. A series of muffled cries of joy went up from the men’s families. Outside, the men embraced each other and their families.

The judge reserved her final words for the jurors, thanking them for their commitment and excusing them from further service for life: “This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has had to sit on.”

Outside Jackson wiped away tears as he walked to the waiting journalists to give a brief statement and the lawyers congratulated each other.

Nobody noticed the young woman leaving through a side entrance and getting into a waiting car.