Belfast Telegraph

Appearance of Ireland captain Rory Best at rugby rape trial sparked social media frenzy

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

A social media frenzy sparked by the attendance of Rory Best threatened to undermine the rape trial just days after it began.

Twitter went into overdrive when pictures emerged of the Ireland rugby captain walking into Belfast’s Laganside Court as his team geared up for the Six Nations campaign.

Jurors were told he had attended the hearing on instruction from senior counsel.

But during legal argument in the absence of the jury, barristers suggested interest in the case had reached “fever pitch”, particularly on social media platforms.

There was even a campaign #notmycaptain, the court was told.

Frank O’Donoghue QC, representing Stuart Olding, said: “He (Mr Best) attended in court to hear the evidence of the complainant.

“He was filmed coming into the courthouse.

“It has provoked what can only be described as a ferocious debate about his appearance or attendance.

“This is a public court and any member of the public can attend this court at any time.

“It is extremely important that the public should know that there is a presumption of innocence which some may feel has been lost.”

Mr Best was among a number of well-known sports figures suggested as potential character witnesses.

Former Ulster star Ruan Pienaar, who is now based in France, BBC sports commentator Jim Neely and professional MMA fighter Leah McCourt were also put forward.

However none appeared and no evidence was offered on their behalf during the nine-week trial.

During the legal arguments, Mr O’Donoghue expressed concern that the fallout could dissuade people from giving evidence and could interfere with the administration of justice.

He also informed the judge of an intention to make an application to restrain the press.

Everyone should be free to attend court without fear of “ridicule”, the lawyer said.

“As a consequence I have taken the view there is now a very real risk that those who may wish to give character evidence in this case will either be dissuaded from doing so because the risk of challenge they may face.

“At a time convenient, I intend to bring an application under the Contempt of Court Act to restrain the press from publishing or broadcasting the identity of any person who wishes to attend this trial to hear any evidence.”

In the end, press coverage was not restricted.

Ireland and Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson, 26, and team-mate Stuart Olding, 25, were unanimously acquitted of rape.

Jackson was also acquitted of sexual assault.

Two other men were found not guilty of lesser charges connected to the alleged incident in June 2016.

Blane McIlroy, 26, was acquitted of exposure while Rory Harrison, 25, was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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