On Wednesday, I sat alone in a room in Berlin for most of the day. Sleet lashed at the windows, blown sideways by a strong wind, so I didn’t go outside.
I read a book. I did some work. I ate what was in the fridge. At around lunchtime, my phone beeped. A WhatsApp from my sister, sent to the family group. “The Belfast rape-trial verdict is in,” she wrote. “Not guilty.”
I didn’t feel surprised.
For weeks, the trial has been a focus for Irish people. Because Ireland is only small (four and a half million people or so in the Republic and another 1.8 million in the North), there is always a sense that we are, as a nation, thinking about the same things. Even if we don’t live there any more.
So, since the trial of the Irish rugby players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, and their friends, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, began nine weeks ago, it’s hummed in the background for Irish people everywhere. It was loudest, of course, for the people whose lives were directly affected, and then for the people closest. But, even for those of us far away, it was something we couldn’t ignore.
We were all aware of the details: a young Northern Irish woman had accused Irish and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson of raping her vaginally and his teammate Stuart Olding of raping her orally. She accused their friend Blane McIlroy of entering the room where the alleged assault had taken place (in the home of Paddy Jackson), naked, holding his penis, demanding sex – the charge levelled against him in court was “exposure”. A fourth man, Rory Harrison – a friend and confidante of the men accused of rape, assault and exposure – was accused of perverting the course of justice and withholding evidence.
All four men denied all charges. Sex had occurred, they said, but it was consensual. The defence teams for the men said that the woman had engaged in consensual sex but regretted it afterwards, worried that imagery or videos might surface, so accused the men of rape.
The woman said no, she had maintained it was rape all along. She didn’t scream as the alleged assault occurred because, she told a barrister cross-examining her, “You underestimate the state of shock you go into after being raped.” The taxi driver who took her home that night told the court that, “she seemed very upset. She was crying-stroke-sobbing throughout the journey.”
The WhatsApp messages the accused sent each other the day after the alleged assault oozed with an entitled and toxic masculinity. In a group that included Olding, Jackson and McIlroy, Olding wrote: “We are all top shaggers”, adding that there was “a bit of a spit roast going on last night”. “There was a lot of spit roast last night,” Jackson wrote back.
A suspicion of women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy is behind both rape culture and the denial of safe and legal abortion
The rape complainant’s clothing, including a pair of blood-stained knickers, was passed to the nine men and three women of the jury. The blood was the focus of much disagreement during the trial. A doctor who examined the complainant hours after the alleged assault said the blood was due to a vaginal laceration. No, the defence said, it was menstrual blood. An agreement could not be reached, but, ultimately, the evidence was not useful, as even a tear in the wall of the vagina does not confirm a lack of consent.
The complainant gave evidence for eight days, facing cross-examination from each of the men’s legal teams. She was unrepresented. Each man accused of a crime was on the stand for a day or less.
The jury took less than four hours to find all four men not guilty.
That’s been the background, whirring when you’re trying to get to sleep, niggling at you when you’re watching the Irish rugby team triumph over England on St Patrick’s Day.
It has felt so familiar, so known. The trial attracted huge publicity because the accused men were well-known sports people, but even besides that, it seemed to represent an Ireland so many of us recognise. The VIP area and the house party. The entitled, mocking men. The WhatsApps and the too-many drinks. The slut-shaming and the misogyny.
Rugby players in Ireland are like gods. It’s the international sport we have proven to be most consistently good at – and these big, tall, strong men are often privately educated and "well spoken". Even the boys and men who will never get near a professional contract – the captains of schools teams or the heroes of tiny local clubs – enjoy a social cachet. I remember, as a teenager, a man reciting a quote to me: “Soccer is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans. On the other hand, rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen.” I think I was supposed to be impressed.
The trial... seemed to represent an Ireland so many of us recognise. The VIP area and the house party. The entitled, mocking men. The WhatsApps and the too-many drinks. The slut-shaming and the misogyny
Throughout this trial and following the verdict, Ireland was united in its interest, but divided in its views. On social media, #Ibelieveher trended but there were people saying #Ibelievehim, too. Sitting on my own, hundreds of miles from any close friends or family, I messaged with women on social media. “How is a jury with nine men and only three women fair?” we asked each other. “I haven’t seen Irish women this angry since the death of Savita Halappanavar,” said a few. But we knew there were others nodding their heads in agreement with the verdict.
Perhaps what everyone can agree on is that the trial and the process was deeply flawed. Paddy Jackson’s lawyer said that, “Vile commentary expressed on social media going well beyond fair comment has polluted the sphere of public discourse and raised real concerns about the integrity of the trial process.”
Meanwhile, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre Noeline Blackwell said that, “All parties were subjected to questioning on the most intimate and private aspects of their lives in a way that was inefficient and cruel.” She added: “We are concerned that the reporting on this case will further deter those who might otherwise report rape.”
What felt undeniably true is this: you must be able to recognise, even respect, the verdict delivered by a jury while also acknowledging that the criminal-justice system needs to urgently reconsider how it handles rape cases.
Later that afternoon, it was announced that a date had been set for Ireland’s abortion referendum. “At least, that’s something,” some people said. And it felt strange to celebrate like that – but it’s not unconnected. A suspicion of women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy is behind both rape culture and the denial of safe and legal abortion.
In Berlin, I listened to the six o’clock Irish news on my mobile phone while doing the dishes. I needed to feel connected. The Angelus tolled first – I had forgotten that happened. The abortion referendum date and the not-guilty verdicts in the rape trial were the main stories. Then there was some business news. In sport, the announcer said, the big story was whether Paddy Jackson would play for Ireland and Ulster again. It would take time for the clubs to carry out a review, he explained, but in the meantime top English and French clubs were expressing an interest in him. It was noted that Jackson’s solicitor said his client’s “main priority is to return to work”.
Wednesday felt like a sad day to be an Irish woman, but that’s nothing new.