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The fifth week of the trial of two Ulster and Ireland rugby players for rape was dominated by evidence from text messages sent by them and their alleged victim

'It was like a merry-go-round at a carnival'

By Laurence White

As the prosecution case against two Ulster and Ireland rugby players for alleged rape, and two other men for charges arising out of the same alleged event, drew towards it conclusion, evidence of social media exchanges between the accused - some of it of a very graphic nature - was revealed to the court this week.

By their very nature, cases involving alleged rape, or sexual assault, contain graphic and intimate details which pose a problem for the mass media in reporting the trials.

Just how much of the material, for example, can be disclosed in a medium which could be read, viewed, or listened to, by children?

This newspaper has consistently prefaced its reports with the warning, 'These reports contain details which some readers might find upsetting'. It could also have added 'embarrassing'.

The texts and WhatsApp messages which the jury and those in the public gallery heard fell into that category.

The court heard about a series of WhatsApp messages that were sent to and from Stuart Olding just hours after the alleged incident, in which he was asked: "How was she?" To which he replied, "Very, very loose".

Another WhatsApp message asked: "Boys, did you spit roast brasses?" Blane McIlroy replied, "Legends". Later exchanges saw Olding write, "We are all top shaggers", and, "There was a bit of spit roasting going on last night fellas".

Paddy Jackson wrote, "There was a lot of spit roasting last night".

Olding told the WhatsApp group, ''It was like a merry-go-round at a carnival''.

But a couple of days later, after Jackson and Olding were arrested, the exchanges took a different tack. The court heard of messages between Rory Harrison and McIlroy which complained of the police contacting senior Ulster rugby officials about the allegations.

On June 30, 2016, Harrison told McIlroy, "Hopefully it will be thrown out". McIlroy asked Harrison: "Do we know who this girl is? This is ridiculous. Surely it's all just guna (sic) be dropped."

Harrison described the complainant as a "silly little girl who has done something she has regretted" and added: "She is causing so much bother for the lads."

McIlroy was next to find himself in bother when police asked him to come to Musgrave Street police station in Belfast, not far from the courthouse where this drama has been played out for several weeks. Harrison texted him, saying, "I'd say leave your phone at home".

But it was not just the accused who were corresponding by social media.

The court heard that the complainant - now 21 - was asked by a friend if she had asked the men to stop. She replied, "Of course. They were too strong".

The past week had started on a strange note when one of the jurors fell ill, causing a hiatus in the trial. He was subsequently excused for the rest of the proceedings and the case went ahead in the presence of 11, rather than the normal 12, jurors.

When the trial resumed, evidence of what McIlroy told police was given to the court. He said he found the alleged victim fully naked in bed with Jackson. He said she had "not tried to cover herself up or anything" and described her as "giddy". He added that he saw no sign of any distress, or discomfort.

McIlroy also told police that he and the woman kissed and she then put her hand down his trousers and grabbed his penis. He said she performed a sex act on him and then gave him oral sex very briefly. Meanwhile, Jackson was still "fooling around" with her, he said.

McIlroy, who was naked by this stage, left the bedroom to get a condom, but could not find one and, when he returned, the woman was getting dressed and preparing to leave. Asked why, she replied: "I don't usually do this, I need to get a taxi. I don't usually have one-night stands." However, he said she was not upset, or crying.

Audio recordings of Olding's interview with police were also played to the court. In the interviews, he denied penetrating the woman vaginally and said he did not see Jackson penetrate her, either, although he was behind her.

He claimed Jackson was sitting on the bed watching while the woman performed oral sex on him (Olding), and he denied that he had forced her into this act: "She was doing it. I wasn't forcing her."

He admitted he and Jackson had discussed the night's events the next day, but both were hungover: "We were drunk whenever it was happening."

Harrison finds himself in a peculiar position, having first been interviewed by police as a witness and only some time later being accused of providing police with a "sanitised" version of what happened that night and giving his friends an opportunity for "damage limitation" by getting them around the table "to come up with a plan". Instead of being in the witness box, he is now in the dock. He was asked by police why he had assumed his friends were being questioned about rape when many other charges could have been levelled at them.

He replied: "It is often at the forefront of your mind because you hear it happening to high-profile sports people - high-profile sports stars quite often get brought into this stuff."

Harrison was also asked about a message he received from the complainant in the hours after the alleged assault, in which she said what happened was "not consensual" and why he had not told this to police in the first interview when he was being treated as a witness.

He said he didn't know what had happened and did not want to speculate and also pointed out that he was never asked about contact between himself and the woman. "If I had been asked, I would have answered that fully."

He also said that the other three accused men "wouldn't be my best friends or anything like that".

On the 24th day of the trial, which saw the ending of the prosecution case, a female police investigating officer was the main witness.

She agreed with Olding's barrister, Frank O'Donoghue QC, that there were "significant inconsistencies" in the statements given by the then 19-year-old woman to a doctor at the Rowan sexual assault referral centre in Antrim and later to the police.

The officer, who has 20 years' experience, said the inconsistencies could be explained by a number of reasons - including trauma, or making a mistake.

Mr O'Donoghue further pressed the officer on why she had not requested a third interview in light of the inconsistencies and why she had not questioned the complainant about a number of other issues.

The officer said it was not a matter of questions. "It's about them being comfortable and telling us what happened in their own words. It is about taking the time and not rushing."

It emerged during cross-examination that Olding had handed police the keys to his home during questioning and that police searched the dwelling without his knowledge. They sought to find the clothes the woman described him as wearing during the night in question, but failed to do so.

The jury was given the day off yesterday, because Judge Patricia Smyth said there were legal matters to deal with, but she had warm words of thanks for them for turning up on Thursday regardless of the inclement weather.

Now the focus of attention will turn to the men in the dock. The jury was told that each could give evidence on their own behalf if they so wished, and they were also entitled to call witnesses.

It has already been stated publicly that Rory Best, the Irish rugby captain and Ulster team-mate of Jackson and Olding, has been called as a character witness.

His appearance in the public gallery at the second day of the trial last month, along with fellow Ulster and Ireland player Iain Henderson, was commented upon in the media and led to the judge telling the jury that the only reason Mr Best was in court "was because he was directed to be here by senior counsel". It was agreed that this fact should be reported by the Press.

The trial is expected to be completed later this month.

The four rugby players who stand accused

Paddy Jackson (26), of Oakleigh Park, Belfast, is accused of raping a 19-year-old woman on June 28, 2016, at his home and also of sexual assault. He denies the charges.

Stuart Olding (24), of Ardenlee Street, Belfast, is also accused of raping the 19-year-old woman on the same date. He denies the charge.

Blane McIlroy (26), from Royal Lodge Road, Belfast, is accused of exposing himself on the same date. He denies the charge.

Rory Harrison (25), of Manse Road, Belfast, is accused of perverting the course of justice and of withholding information. He denies the charge.

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