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Ulster rugby stars in the dock and a packed public gallery... the rape trial gripping Northern Ireland

Events in Court 12 at Belfast's Laganside complex dominated the headlines this week. Laurence White looks back at the opening days of the case of the Queen v Patrick Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison

Celebrities and a whiff of scandal make for a heady cocktail sure to excite public attention. And so it has proved in Courtroom 12 at Belfast's Laganside complex.

This past week, the public gallery has been packed - many of those present are friends and relatives of the four men in the glass-walled dock.

Two of those men are Paddy Jackson (26), of Oakleigh Park, and Stuart Olding (24), of Ardenlee Street, both Belfast, rugby stars with Ulster and Ireland. They each face one of the most serious charges on the statute book: that of rape.

Two other sportsmen, Blane McIlroy (26), of Royal Lodge Road, Belfast, a former Ulster rugby player, who has represented Ireland at under-20 level, and Rory Harrison (25), of Manse Road, Belfast, a former UCD and Belfast Harlequins player, are charged with lesser offences connected to the events in the early hours of June 28, 2016.

The four defendants deny all the charges against them.

Also present has been the alleged victim, then a 19-year-old student, who, the court was told by Toby Hederworth QC, opening the prosecution case, had gone back to Jackson's south Belfast home with three other girls after meeting him at Ollies nightspot in the centre of the city. She had been there celebrating the end of her exams.

It will be up to the jury of nine men and three women to determine what exactly happened in that house on that night and whether the events which unfolded were consensual or not.

After the jurors were sworn in, Judge Patricia Smyth told them the case is expected to last five weeks. And she told them they would be the only people to hear all the evidence and see all the witnesses.

The judge also warned them to keep an open mind until all the evidence and cross-examinations were completed, as their views may well change during the course of the trial.

The usual advice not to discuss the evidence with anyone else, or to conduct research into any individual or anything to do with the trial, was also given. Given the nature of the alleged offences, the jury has already heard quite graphic evidence. Indeed, this newspaper's reports carry the warning 'These reports contain details which some readers might find upsetting'. And the media has decided to omit some evidence which is even more graphic.

Mr Hederworth set the scene from the prosecution viewpoint at the opening of the trial. He said the young woman would claim that she was raped by Paddy Jackson and orally raped by Stuart Olding. He further stated that Blane McIlroy had appeared in the bedroom at one stage completely naked, leading to him being charged with exposure.

Rory Harrison, who had left the woman home in a taxi, is accused of perverting the course of justice and withholding evidence.

Mr Hederworth said that Harrison - ostensibly concerned for the woman's welfare - had also been in contact with some of the defendants, advising one to leave his phone behind when he went to a police station to be interviewed.

On the opening day, a number of texts sent by the young woman and also by some of the defendants in the hours after the alleged assaults were read to the court.

Jackson and Olding shared texts with friends, in one of which Olding allegedly bragged that they were "top shaggers". There were also comments about events being like "a merry go-round at a carnival" and "a spit roast" happening at the party.

The court also heard that the complainant had contacted Harrison, saying: "I know you must be mates with these guys, but I don't like them. And what happened was not consensual which was why I was so upset."

Harrison had sent McIlroy a message saying: "Mate, no joke she was in hysterics. Wasn't going to end well."

But it was the young woman - now 21 and who cannot be named for legal reasons - that those in court wanted to hear and see give evidence.

When she entered the witness box, she was shielded from the defendants and the public by a heavy blue curtain, although she was visible on a television screen.

With her hair pulled back in a pony tail and wearing a blue designer shirt and black trousers, she gave evidence for around one-and-a-half hours.

It was not an easy experience for her. She broke down on several occasions, although some noted that she displayed a steely determination on others.

She admitted kissing Paddy Jackson at one stage in a bedroom in the house, but when he tried to remove her trousers she told him that she did not want to go further and went downstairs.

Soon afterwards, she decided to leave, put on her shoes and then realised her handbag was still upstairs. When she went to retrieve it, she claimed, Jackson forced himself on her, pulling down her trousers and raping her.

She told the court: "In that moment, you think you are going to kick and scream and fight, but it doesn't work that way. Look, you just freeze."

She said she had already told Jackson that she did not want things going that far and there was nothing about her physically that was telling him to keep going.

The next thing she remembered was Stuart Olding coming into the room. "My heart sank. I knew what was going to happen," she said.

What happened, the woman claimed, was that Olding forced her to have oral sex.

At one stage, a woman opened the door to the room, but then left after Jackson asked her if she wanted to stay.

The complainant described a further attack by Jackson and then recalled how a completely naked McIlroy came into the room. Her response was "this is not going to happen again".

She managed to get off the bed, grabbed her clothes and, as she left the room, said she told the men: "How many times does a girl have to say no for it to sink in?"

She said she was reluctant at first to tell the police about the assaults. She thought they might not believe her.

But she added: "The more I thought about it, rape is a game of power and control. They rely on your silence. The only way you can take the power back is when you actually do something about it. Going to the police was doing something about it.

"I may be preventing it happening to someone else."

She told of her feelings of embarrassment at what had happened and she didn't want people finding out about it. She also knew, if she went to the police, she would have to discuss the matter with her family.

Ultimately, her bottom line was: "No one should have to go through what I went through."

However, in the hours after the alleged assaults, she had texted a friend, saying she didn't want to report them to police - "you know how that will turn out. It's my word against theirs".

And she feared that Ulster Rugby would vouch for the good character of the defendants and she would look like a "stupid little girl".

As this evidence was given, present were the Ulster and Irish rugby captain Rory Best and senior player Iain Henderson, both of whom had come from the Irish training camp, where they had been preparing for the opening game of the Six Nations championship against France in Paris today. Also there was Ulster and Ireland player Craig Gilroy, who is not in the Irish squad.

During her cross-examination, which was again an emotional experience for the young woman, the court was shown her interview with a female detective two days after the alleged assaults.

Again, she was screened from the defendants by the blue curtain, but could be seen wiping away tears as she watched a replay of the interview.

She was asked why she had not told a clinic, where she had gone hours after the alleged events in Jackson's home, that she had been forced to give oral sex.

She replied that counsellors had told her she would have to go to the Rowan sexual assault centre in Antrim for examination.

She was not withholding information, she said, and she didn't get every detail out because it was a very distressing situation.

She later said she did not regard oral sex as rape, but she said that she had told police about it.

Yesterday, the young woman was back in the witness box as she was shown CCTV images from Ollies nightspot, where some members of the Northern Ireland soccer team, as well as Ulster rugby players, were having a night out.

She had admitted that she had met Jackson once before, while working as a promotions girl in a pub, but she denied that she went to the VIP area at Ollies with the intention of meeting any of the celebrity sportsmen there.

She claimed she did not know who any of them were and denied downplaying her knowledge of rugby and the players involved in the game.

The trial continues on Monday.

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