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Belfast rape trial verdict does not erase players’ horrific sexism

We have every right to comment on the attitudes towards women of the accused

Ulster and Ireland rugby player Paddy Jackson (26) outside Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday. Photograph: Pacemaker Press

There were many sordid and demoralising moments during what has become known as “the Belfast rugby rape trial”. Like listening to the dispute over what exactly constituted the act of “spit-roasting”, or watching as the jury had to study the blood-stained knickers of the young woman. But few were more dispiriting than the discovery that Crown Court 12 had become a tourist destination.

One afternoon, when the court had been cleared for legal argument, a woman told a huddle of reporters in the courts cafe that she and her husband had travelled up to Belfast from Limerick to visit the Titanic Centre, but not having been diverted long by it, they had decided to come over and see a bit of the trial. They’d got good seats in the public gallery. As Sylvia Plath wrote in her poem Lady Lazarus: The peanut crunching crowd/Shoves in to see…

And of course nothing attracts attention like celebrity. In the small pond that is Northern Ireland, Paddy Jackson is a big fish. CCTV footage from Ollie’s, the club in which everyone who ended up back at Jackson’s house that night partied first, showed fans approaching him for selfies. He was clearly the alpha male among the defendants, Stuart Olding the only one who came close in stature.

Jackson filed into the dock first every day, then Olding, who sat shoulder to shoulder with him. The other two seemed deferential, eager to please them.

All of them had been talent spotted as children, their sporting prowess nurtured and rewarded throughout their careers in Belfast’s elite grammar schools. They were treated like young gods. Jackson and Olding had brilliance. All of them had the macho swagger that goes with it.

Sexual harassment

The feminist intellectual Jacqueline Rose has written about her unease with the way it took the exposure of Harvey Weinstein to get sexual harassment of women on to the front pages. She describes the photographs that appeared of him with his arm proprietorially around a parade of beautiful actresses and wonders whether public anger about violence against women “might also be feeding vicariously off the forms of perversion that fuel the violence in the first place”.

As it happens, Ollie’s is the nightclub attached to Belfast’s luxurious Merchant Hotel in which scenes from the chilling TV series The Fall were filmed.

The detective (so sexy that seasoned local police officers fall at her high-heeled feet in a swoon) was played by Gillian Anderson. She undresses in her bedroom, unaware that the serial killer played by Jamie Dornan has just rifled through her things and is hiding in her bathroom.

We, the viewers know, of course. I hated the show’s pornographic gender politics, the way it made me feel like a voyeur, but did not miss a single episode.

Extremely graphic

The evidence in the rape trial was extremely graphic and there were days when it was the front page lead for every paper on the newsstands, when it seemed like the only thing anyone was talking about. Both Jackson and Olding had played for Ireland so this was as true of the Republic as the North.

It seemed surreal that the Six Nations rugby championship was going on at the same time, culminating in the historic victory in the Grand Slam. On the Saturday that the court sat, barristers could be heard excitedly discussing going down for the game afterwards.

There was an overwhelming level of commentary on Twitter, some of it vicious, much of it ignorant. Some feminists were criticising journalists for not writing things which would have, in reality, immediately collapsed the trial.

Stuart Olding's apology struck a chord of empathy that was profoundly needed

There is a deep ocean between due process and the complex legal requirement for a prosecutor to prove to a jury “beyond all reasonable doubt” that a person was raped, and the hashtag #ibelieveher, which seems to suggest that in all cases all allegations by women are true.

The defendants have been found not guilty on all counts. We have to respect the decision of the jury, which was unanimous. This does not mean that the jury did not believe the complainant in relation to her account of that night – though it equally may not have believed her. It does mean that these four men have been found by a jury to be innocent of the charges they faced.

Horrific sexism

However, we have every right to comment on the horrific, domineering sexism of their attitudes towards women. We must demand of Ulster Rugby and the IRFU that in the review they are about to conduct they will address this. The IRFU has already had to deal with the disrespect it showed towards the women’s rugby team.

Olding had oral sex with the 19-year-old woman, then headed off without a word to sleep in another room. Jackson engaged in sexual activity with her and then went off to sleep – he reckoned she must have left because he heard her high heels on the tiles of the hall.

All four, and their friends, exchanged demeaning messages. One bragged of “spit-roasting a bird with Jacko”. They called women sluts and brasses. The sex was far more about their own male relationships than about the woman.

After he was acquitted, Olding said he regretted that night, and was sorry the complainant had been hurt. This was gracious. It struck a chord of empathy that was profoundly needed.