Feminists to stage protest rally at Kingspan ahead of Ulster rugby match tonight
More than 700 people have indicated they could attend a rally tonight calling for Ulster Rugby to address the behaviour of players ahead of the club's first home match since the trial of two players for rape ended.
The demonstration is being organised by Belfast Feminist Network and will take place outside the Kingspan stadium in Belfast just before the team plays Welsh side Ospreys.
A further 200 people have said on Facebook that they will be attending the event, called 'Stamp out Misogyny at Ulster Rugby'.
It is the second such protest to take place in Belfast since Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson (26) and Stuart Olding (25) were acquitted of raping the same woman at a house party at Mr Jackson's south Belfast home in June 2016.
Mr Jackson was also cleared of sexual assault.
The feminist group says the rallies are "the start of a movement to change how our criminal justice system deals with sexual assault crimes".
Despite the trial ending over a fortnight ago, the furore surrounding it shows no signs of abating.
Mr Jackson and Mr Olding have been relieved of their playing duties pending the outcome of a review by the IRFU and Ulster Rugby.
A petition calling for the pair to be reinstated into the Ulster Rugby team had garnered almost 16,000 signatures last night.
Two opposing petitions calling for the men to be left off the teams had gathered a total of just over 450 signatures.
However, another petition urging Ulster Rugby to publish its review of the players and take action on the findings has been signed by almost 70,000 people.
In addition, 139 people took out a crowd-funded advertisement in this newspaper last week demanding that Mr Jackson and Mr Olding never play rugby for Ulster or Ireland again.
The advert described the content of social media exchanges involving the pair as "reprehensible".
By contrast, an advert in Wednesday's Belfast Telegraph, paid for by fans of Ulster Rugby, called on the club to reinstate the two players to the squad.
The full-page advert, funded by more than 100 supporters, described "the social media backlash" against the men as "cyber prosecution".
During the trial the court heard about a series of WhatsApp messages in which Mr Olding said "we are all top shaggers" and "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."
Belfast Feminist Network said its members were "still angry at the underbelly of sexism and misogyny that was revealed in evidence given during the recent trial".
It added: "This rally is not about the future careers of the players currently suspended.
"We are sending a message that there needs to be action taken by Ulster Rugby and other institutions to stamp out misogyny.
"The reason for being there is demanding accountability and a culture change in the rugby community." The group wants reforms to the criminal justice system in cases of alleged sexual assaults; an education programme on consent to be taught in schools, and "adequately resourced support services for victims and survivors of rape and sexual abuse".
Ahead of the rally, the organisers admitted they had "some concerns about a confrontational attitude from a minority of fans but equally we reckon there will be many who support what we're doing".
When asked if they had concerns about the safety of fans attending the game in light of the planned protest, an Ulster Rugby spokesperson stated: "As for every home fixture, Ulster Rugby is working closely with the PSNI and Belfast City Council to put appropriate measures in place to provide a safe and enjoyable experience for all supporters."
The Belfast Telegraph also asked the PSNI if extra officers would be deployed on the ground in light of the protest, and if they wished to issue behavioural advice to protesters and fans."
A PSNI spokesperson stated that "police do not comment on operational matters". He added: "Police are aware and would ask anyone intending to organise a public protest or demonstration to contact local police at the earliest opportunity. This allows officers to work with the organiser to ensure that any demonstration is within the law, (and) does not cause obstruction."