Susan McKay: Public disquiet lingered long after Belfast rape trial
Report recommends excluding spectators to protect trial witnesses from ‘cruel gaze’
Paddy Jackson leaves Laganside Magistrates Court, March 2018. He was acquitted of rape but was subsequently sacked from the Ireland rugby team. Photograph: Pacemaker
Earlier this week, London Irish rugby club proudly announced it has signed Paddy Jackson to its up and coming team. The club displayed its trophy player in photos showing him standing broadshouldered with his Ireland shirt on, boasting of his prowess, the caps and the points for Ireland and Ulster. London Irish has, it declared, a new vision for its future, and Jackson will bring to it “a wealth of experience”. That, as Belfast feminists have caustically noted, “is one way of putting it”.
Yes, the man who introduced some of us to the term “spit-roast” is back. Last year, lest anyone has forgotten, Jackson was put on trial for rape. He was acquitted. However, he was subsequently sacked from the Ireland rugby team – he was deemed to have failed to uphold its values of “respect, inclusivity and integrity” because of the misogynistic attitudes to women he had displayed.
It seems more than likely that this is just a stepping stone back into the limelight of the Ireland team. It is probably assumed that those who feel that Jackson disgraced his country and should never represent it again will have exhausted their anger by that stage. It is, in a way, a reasonable calculation. Rage and hurt and solidarity with the young woman who was the complainant in the case brought thousands of women and men out on to the streets in Belfast, Dublin, London and in other cities and towns in the aftermath of Jackson’s trial. Such demonstrations require a communal energy that inevitably subsides.
Renewal of hostilities
It does not go away, though. We absorb the hurt into ourselves, into our bodies and into our souls. Last week, the brave and brilliant British Labour MP Jess Phillips spoke about how she broke down in tears on the street in Birmingham, the constituency she represents. This followed a renewal of hostilities from a Ukip candidate for the European elections, Carl Benjamin. This bully had sent a tweet to Phillips in 2016 saying, “I wouldn’t even rape you.” He revisited this recently, adding “with enough pressure I might cave in but let’s be honest nobody’s got that much beer”.
Many other women who are MPs have revealed that they have been threatened with death or rape in recent months
After Phillips spoke out about this, two men pursued her in the street outside Westminster, one of them shouting at her that he paid her wages and why shouldn’t someone joke about raping her. The Ukip leader minimised what Benjamin had done, claiming he was engaging in satire, though he also told him to desist from rape jokes to concentrate on “the serious political issues”. Benjamin refused to apologise, defending his right, if provoked by a “giant bitch”, to behave “like a giant dick”. The rhetoric of Brexit extremists is macho and vicious. It has degraded public discourse in the UK. Many other women who are MPs have revealed that they have been threatened with death or rape in recent months. The murder of Jo Cox stands as a brutal warning. Explaining her tears, Phillips said it was because: “I just felt the enormous weight of years and years of abuse.”
In her memoir, Sisters, the late June Levine describes an incident in which she was at a filling station on her way to an appointment. As she got into her car, a group of young men getting into another car said something to her. She responded politely and drove off. A few miles later, she realised they were following her. They tried to shunt her car off the road. She broke into a sweat. Her nose began to bleed. Her bowels opened. She drove very fast and eventually they abandoned their chase. She did not tell her husband but did eventually tell a psychiatrist. His response was: “Yes, but nothing actually happened, did it?”
I met Levine when we both took part in training to be volunteers at the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. She spoke about the way the incident stayed with her. She recounts this in Sisters: “I remembered that fear. It had been a fear like no other, yet familiar, sickeningly recognisable, making other fears trivial. It had a life of its own. It dwelled as a race memory, poised in the pit of my stomach, prepared to grow in relation to one signal, the ancient atmosphere of rape.”
A deep public disquiet lingered after the so-called “Belfast rugby rape trial”. There was the gross and appalling sexism Jackson and his friends (three of whom were also acquitted on other charges) had displayed in their social media exchanges about their night of partying with young women they called “Belfast sluts”. There was also the use of rape myths by the all-male set of barristers who defended the accused. Perhaps most notoriously, one of them asked the jury to consider why the complainant had not screamed. After all, there were middle-class girls downstairs who would not tolerate rape, he reasoned.
After the trial, Sir John Gillen was commissioned to review sexual offences law and its application. Following an admirably wide consultation, his excellent report was published last week. Gillen recognises that the fear of “shame and long lasting humiliation” is a deterrent to reporting rape. His wide-ranging recommendations include excluding spectators to protect witnesses from their “cruel gaze”. He calls for education tackling the victim-blaming myths of rape, and for their use in court to be outlawed.
Jackson was acquitted. A jury unanimously found him not guilty of rape.
So that means that nothing actually happened, doesn’t it?