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Eimear Cotter: A trial with no winners has left rugby fanbase deeply divided

Protests at match contrast with some fans' pleas to get players back on pitch

The great Ernest Hemingway once wrote: "About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

No one could feel good after the Belfast rugby rape trial.

Few covered themselves in glory, either during the nine-week trial, nor in its aftermath.

Everyone had an opinion. Many of them were ill-informed or biased in one way or another.

The trial has raised many questions about morals, respect, both self-respect and for each other, and the kind of behaviour we as a society expect from our young people. Indeed, the conduct we expect from our sports stars.

Just over two weeks ago, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were acquitted of raping a woman at a house party, with Mr Jackson also cleared of sexually assaulting her.

Some of the debate this week has been that the show is over, they've said sorry and it is now time to let them get back to what they do best - playing rugby.

On Wednesday, a group of Ulster rugby fans took out a full-page advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph calling for Jackson and Olding to be reinstated to the team.

The advert declared itself "fed up" with the "cyber persecution" being dealt out to the men.

"What is reprehensible is the extent of the social media backlash aimed at incriminating men unanimously acquitted of any crime," it said. "As Ulster and Irish rugby fans, we want these innocent men reinstated and allowed to resume their roles for both club and country. The IRFU should take note of the silent majority and not bow to the court of social media."

An online petition, which by Friday had received over 16,000 signatures, also called for the men to be reinstated to the Ulster squad as soon as possible.

Irish legend Willie John McBride, who is now president of the Ulster Rugby Supporters Club, called on Ulster to reinstate the men, telling RTE's Sean O'Rourke programme it was "time they were back playing rugby again" and he believed they had "learned their lesson."

However, Noeline Blackwell, CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, said calls to reinstate the players "entirely missed the legitimate reason for concern by so many people".

"They don't seem to recognise the behaviour of some of the most prominent rugby players in the country was extraordinarily disrespectful and failed to take account of the humanity or dignity of the young woman involved", she said.

Ms Blackwell said the IRFU and Ulster Rugby must address "any culture within rugby that might in any way condone or encourage that behaviour".

With the worldwide success of the #MeToo and #Time'sUp movements, the lad banter in changing rooms across the country which is derogatory towards women, or homosexuals for that matter, must be stamped out.

TV presenter Laura Whitmore, writing in 'Hot Press', touched upon this, saying the Belfast trial had "split opinions".

In an article, where Ms Whitmore spoke of being sexually assaulted while on a night out, she said she had been contacted by many women who said the derogatory messages the men exchanged was "simply culturally accepted as 'lad banter' and loads of guys in those kinds of social circles do it".

This mentality, she said, sickened her to the core.

In case anyone has forgotten, details of crude messages sent by the men via WhatsApp emerged during the trial.

Mr Olding said: "There was a bit of spit roasting going on last night, fellas." Mr Jackson wrote: "There was a lot of spit roasting last night."

Mr Olding told the WhatsApp group: "It was like a merry-go-round at a carnival."

In the wake of his acquittal, Mr Olding expressed deep regret for his involvement in the incident, while Jackson later apologised for taking part in the "degrading and offensive" conversation.

Their team-mate, Craig Gilroy, also "apologised unreservedly" for any offence caused by a lurid WhatsApp message he sent, which was used as evidence in the trial

There were more examples of 'lad behaviour' this week, after the judge lifted reporting restrictions imposed during the trial. From the media's perspective, it was important the restrictions were lifted, as once the marathon trial was over, irrespective of any verdicts, there was no legal basis for them to continue.

It was subsequently revealed that jurors were unaware there was additional blood found on the sheets of Jackson's bed, with his barrister, Brendan Kelly QC, saying he had "no intention of saying where this blood came from".

Also kept from jurors was the fact a short pornographic video featuring a 'spit-roast' was sent by Rory Harrison to Stuart Olding the day after the house party.

Defence lawyers had also claimed the judge's "tone" was more sympathetic when outlining the complainant's evidence in her charge to the jury, in comparison to her tone when going through the men's evidence.

Jurors were not told Stuart Olding's semen was found on the crotch of a pair of women's white jeans, as this could have created "an unfair suspicion" in their minds.

The IRFU and Ulster rugby are currently conducting a join review that will decide whether the men line out for their province next season.

It is understood that the results of this review are imminent, perhaps as early as today.

We can talk about morals, respect and decency all we like, but in the end any decision on whether Mr Jackson and Mr Olding play again for Ulster and Ireland may come down to money.

On Thursday, Ulster Rugby's sponsor Bank of Ireland said it was reviewing its partnership with the province.

"It is of paramount importance to Bank of Ireland that our sponsorship activity aligns with and supports our core values and reflects positively on Bank of Ireland through association."

Whatever happens, this trial has left many with a bitter taste about young people's behaviour.

Belfast Telegraph

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