Feminists determined to kick ‘reprehensible behaviour’ into touch
A new battle-cry went up at the Kingspan stadium in Belfast last night when feminist protesters adapted one of local rugby's most famous chants to "Stand Up for the Ulsterwomen" as the furore over the highly-charged Jackson/Olding rape trial moved up a gear and into a potentially fraught new arena.
Police officers were drafted onto the streets leading to the ground to hold the line between the demonstrators and Ulster rugby fans as the war of words in the aftermath of the 42-day trial went public.
In the midst of angry and often vitriolic online exchanges, rival petitions and newspaper advertisements, there'd been fears of confrontations but the only "clashes" outside the Kingspan stadium were minor verbal ones as a rally was held by several hundred demonstrators.
They insisted that their protest was not about the future careers of the suspended Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.
They said what they were calling for was for rugby officials to address the "misogyny" and "reprehensible" behaviour of their players, details of which emerged during the trial, before Mr Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (25) were cleared of all the charges against them arising out of rape allegations at a house party in Mr Jackson's home in June 2016.
Their friends Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison were also acquitted of all the charges against them.
The placard-carrying and drum-beating protesters gathered outside the Mount Merrion Avenue entrance to the Kingspan half an hour before the start of Ulster's game against Welsh side the Ospreys, their first home fixture since the trial.
Several of the placards, in the purple, white and green colours of the suffragette movement, read "Stand up for the Ulsterwomen", which is a play on the famous "Stand up for the Ulstermen" chant of rugby supporters.
The demo was called 'Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby', and was organised by Belfast Feminist Network (BFN), but it wasn't a women-only rally. Anything but.
Many men joined the protest, which was held beside the Cregagh estate, where Man United and Northern Ireland footballing legend George Best was raised.
It was the first time that the protesters had come face to face with rugby fans but the demonstrators and the supporters generally heeded calls on their respective social media outlets to stay dignified and respectful.
Online exchanges have already shown that many Ulster supporters are as angry as the demonstrators over the sexual boasts in texts and on What'sApp which were swapped between some of the accused after the party.
Several fans have handed back their Ulster season tickets after voicing their outrage at the messages on social media with their references about "top shaggers" and "spit roasts".
One man who had a foot in both camps last night was Ulster season ticket holder Jim Latimer, who's been a fan of the team for 40 years.
He stood side by side with the demonstrators before crossing the street to watch the game.
He said: "I don't think there's a single Ulster supporter who could oppose any of the demands that the Feminist Network are making about the criminal justice system, the media and education.
"And I don't think that Paddy Jackson or Stuart Olding should ever be back in an Ulster jersey.
"If they are, I won't renew my season ticket."
Another protester who wore an Ulster shirt was Sally Bridge, who said: "I am a big rugby supporter but I can't look past those online comments. People say rugby is a gentleman's game but this was so not part of the gentleman's game.
"That kind of filth which was seen on the internet was appalling."
People Before Profit politician Gerry Carroll was among the demonstrators, and said: "I think it is important to be here today to send a message to Ulster Rugby and wider society that the sort of behaviour that we have witnessed online simply shouldn't and won't be tolerated."
Also supporting the rally was comic actress Nuala McKeever.
One of the rally organisers, Helen Crickard, said: "We are delighted with the response tonight. And there's been very little hassle towards our people from the fans going into the ground.
"And you can see from the crowds that a lot of women love rugby just as much as the men."
One woman called Pat who addressed the crowd said she was a passionate fan of Ulster Rugby and added: "Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have shown by their behaviour that they don't encompass the values of role models that we want for our children, our young men and our young women."
The main speaker Kellie Turtle said rugby players must be re-educated about their attitudes to women but, appearing to contradict earlier statements about the careers of Mr Jackson and Mr Olding, she said that if the Ulster Rugby and the IRFU officials didn't find that the "level of disgusting misogyny" highlighted by the trial was a sackable offence, they had a serious problem.
Stewards inside the 18,000-capacity stadium were last night on the alert for protests inside the ground, but none materialised.
There had been speculation that the feminist supporters might try to get their message across to a wider audience watching the game live on television.
Also unfounded were rumours that fans might sing the names of Jackson and Olding in a show of solidarity for the two players.
Jackson's Oakleigh Park home is only a short distance away from the Kingspan but there were no reported sightings of him or Olding at the game.
Police had appealed for protesters to meet them for discussions to ensure that the rally could go ahead peacefully and within health and safety guidelines.
The BFN Facebook account had expressed concerns about the possibility of a "confrontational attitude of a minority of fans".
But it added: "Equally we reckon there will be many who support what we're doing".
Ulster Rugby officials are coming under growing pressure to spell out what they're planning to do about Jackson and Olding, and their Bank of Ireland sponsors have said they are "highly concerned" about the situation.
Their logos didn't appear on the Ulster players' jerseys last night, as part of a pre-arranged promotion of a charity.
Full page advertisements in this newspaper have carried opposing arguments over whether the suspended players should be sacked or re-instated.
A number of Ulster fans were seen handing out leaflets before the Pro 14 game and it was clear outside the Kingspan that a large number of fans would be prepared to back calls - including one from Irish rugby icon Willie John McBride - for the suspended players to be allowed to play again.
Others said they shared the opposition to the two men ever being allowed to play for their province and their country again.
"They're supposed to be role models for thousands of young people," said one fan.
"What sort of message will it be sending out if they're back playing again?"