Belfast Telegraph

Lindy McDowell: Jackson and Olding careers have been macerated by a vocal social media backlash

By Lindy McDowell

In the end it wasn't a victory for feminism. It was a victory for finance.  Because, let's face it, those who generally call the shots in sport are the sponsors.

And in the opinion of many Ulster Rugby fans, it would appear to have been the pressure from the sponsors that played a key role in the decision by both Ulster Rugby and the IRFU to drop Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding from the provincial and international teams.

Sponsors will always be anxious to protect their own brand from any taint or hint of controversy.

Respect, inclusivity and integrity, said the rugby statement, those are the core values of the game.

High-minded indeed.

Respect, inclusivity and integrity. And the support of Bank of Ireland.

Stuart Olding

Both of these young men, it should be stressed yet again, were acquitted unanimously of the rape allegations laid against them in the recent trial.

They are innocent.

Innocent young men (and their families) who have been through an 18-month ordeal and have now been dumped by the teams which they have served loyally.

And why?

Because, in the course of that trial, private messages they shared with their mates two years ago have, as a result of court proceedings, been made public.

As a rugby stalwart remarked to a friend of mine this week, ironically in the week in which Belfast gave Bill Clinton the Freedom of the City, those private WhatsApp messages between a group of young men have been deemed utterly unforgivable.

Even the sage voice of that rugby giant (in every sense) Willie John McBride held no sway.

McBride, as honourable a man as ever graced a sports field anywhere, had said in a previous interview he was "sorry to see that there are some people who want to deny them (Jackson and Olding) the opportunity (to continue to play rugby) and take away their livelihood".

Speaking of all the young people involved, he added: "When the alcohol is in, the common sense is out, and it is very sad that they have all got caught up in this."

They had been found not guilty, he said, and their post-verdict treatment was unfair. A voice of common sense. But, in the end, fairness didn't come into it.

Both Jackson and Olding have made heartfelt statements in the aftermath of the rugby authorities' decision, expressing their disappointment at their sacking, but also their determination to move forward and prove themselves.

Both, touchingly, referenced their families and apologised again for their behaviour.

There will be - there are - many people, both rugby fans and onlookers, who will feel like Willie John, that both of these young men have been unfairly treated.

And it should be stressed here, very many of those who feel aggrieved on their behalf are women.

Although there has been an attempt to portray this as an "anti-women's rights" issue, women have been as divided about the case as men.

There is no doubt that Jackson and Olding's once glittering careers have been macerated by an extremely vocal social media backlash. Cyber persecution, as a supportive advert in this newspaper called it.

And yet I feel both will in time rise above this on a personal level. What's that old line about whatever doesn't kill you makes you strong?

Both are obviously genuinely remorseful about the language used in those WhatsApp postings.

They are young, talented and intelligent and they feel they now have something to prove.

When the dust has settled and the hysteria has died down, I have no doubt they will go on and make a real success of their lives.

I feel for their families, though; for their mothers in particular. For them this last two years will have been a nightmare. But they too will regroup and move on.

Meanwhile, it would be good to think that our legal system will learn from this.

The rugby trial (which is how most people referred to it) made headlines mostly because of the celebrity factor.

But while the complainant will remain anonymous for the rest of her life, the innocent defendants and their families and, it has to be said, the witnesses (not least poor Dara Florence) took the full force of the media scrutiny.

Paddy Jackson

In the wake of this case there should not only be inquiry into why it was ever taken in the first place, but there should also be a review of the policy of naming defendants in such cases.

I believe fervently in open justice, but having read about people jostling for seats in the public gallery during this trial, I also think there's a strong argument for barring the public from hearings involving sexual assault cases.

A rape trial is not a public entertainment. Chiefly, though, and I've kept this for the last, what dismayed me most about this case was the response of many so-called feminists.

I regard myself as a feminist. So feminist, in fact - such a believer in equality - that I actually believe women too can lie.

In my view when we get to the stage where we feel compelled to "believe her" just because of her gender, we haven't just lost the plot.

We've lost sight of the whole concept of justice. And, yes, of course those who complain of sexual assault should be treated gently. But questions that need to be asked must be asked.

Justice must be done. Justice should not be gender specific.

One of the telling responses to this case has been the very many women - young women especially - who have expressed concern about the refusal of the social media gauleiters to respect the findings of the jury.

So no, this hasn't been a case that pitched women against men. It's not a "women's issue", it's a wider justice issue. It's been a case about where we, each of us, believe fairness lies.

"I hope that people will see that these are not bad young men," is how Willie John succinctly summed it up.

Me too.

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Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson after Ulster match


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