Lindy McDowell: Rugby rape trial verdicts: Jackson, Olding, McIlroy and Harrison and their families face challenge of putting lives back together after harrowing case
There are no winners. That old cliche. But how starkly, cruelly true in this case. Yes, Patrick Jackson (26), Stuart Olding (25), Blane McIlroy (26) and Rory Harrison (25) have all been exonerated of all charges laid against them.
They are innocent and leave court with their names entirely cleared. But what a terrible price they, and their families, have paid in the last, long 19 months.
As counsel for Paddy Jackson noted to the court earlier in their trial, his client’s life has over that time been “blighted” as those false rape claims hung over him.
In the circumstances, “blighted” may be a tame description.
Jackson and Stuart Olding’s rugby careers have been put on hold. Blane McIlroy has been unable to resume his studies in America.
And now those four young men — and, perhaps just as importantly, their families — face the challenge of putting their lives back together after one of the most harrowing, high-profile court cases of recent years. One which has seen the most graphic evidence reported amid an almost unprecedented public clamour for every little detail.
For we are all armchair jurists now. We read about trials or listen to what is reported and such summary is suffice to enable us to make up our minds.
Guilty or innocent?
We know long before any real jury.
This case began way back in June 2016 after a party in Paddy Jackson’s home off the Ravenhill Road.
He and fellow Ireland rugby international Stuart Olding had just returned from a tour of South Africa.
They were facing a welcome break from training, their friend Blane McIlroy was home from his studies in America and another good friend, Rory Harrison, joined them as they celebrated at the upmarket Ollie’s (it was formerly a bank vault), an adjunct to the five-star Merchant Hotel in Waring Street, Belfast.
In their early 20s, they were successful and famous — with the world at their feet.
And with young women clamouring to make their acquaintance.
That warm June night as they partied in the VIP section of Ollie’s — the quilted leather seating area discreetly curtained off from the rest of the club — they must truly have felt on top of the world.
But their world was about to crumble around them.
The allegations made against them are among the most heinous which can be made against any man.
And you do not have to be particularly blessed with imagination to envisage how terrible the days following their arrest — and the days since — were for the four accused. And for their families.
They had to break that news to their parents and siblings. Go through with them the events of that night.
Talk to their mothers and fathers about things sons don’t usually ever have to broach with them.
The support all four subsequently received from their families was evident, day in, day out, in news coverage of the case.
Paddy Jackson’s family walked into court beside him each day.
His mother Gay — her face rigid with strain and her blonde hair blowing in the wind — his father Peter, sister Kerry and brother Paul, and Paul’s partner Eimear, all with heads held high, a phalanx of love around their boy.
It must have been excruciating for them.
Excruciating too, to sit through explicit descriptions of what happened in the bedroom of Oakleigh Park — admitted and alleged.
You do not have to be a parent to know that during the long, dark nights of this marathon nine-week trial his mother and his father must have gone through such agonies.
Should the case ever have been taken? That will now inevitably be a subject of heated debate.
As Paddy Jackson’s solicitor, Joe McVeigh, noted outside court: “It’s our belief that the investigation has been characterised by the turning of a blind eye to inadequacies in the evidence of the complainant combined with the very apparent investigative bias.”
The prosecution, he added, had made much of the “perceived privileged position” held by Jackson as an international sports star.
But Mr McVeigh added: “We say that it was this very status as a famous sportsman that drove the decision to prosecute in the first place.”
In this era of Time’s Up and MeToo there may, however, have been other drivers.
Police were criticised during the trial for failing to put important questions to the young woman alleging rape.
As Mr McVeigh further notes: “Consistency had never been a feature of the complainant’s evidence, long before she entered the witness box.”
Yet the case still went ahead.
And over on social media the ghouls had a field day.
Mainstream media outlets are quite rightly barred from comment during a trial when a case is sub-judice.
Not so the keyboard commentariat who, without actually being in the court itself, had already made up their minds.
Some of the comments posted were utterly shocking. And some jaw-dropping in their stupidity. (One poster raged about the woman’s underwear being shown in court, apparently assuming this was done to humiliate her when actually it was key evidence.)
Much was made of the WhatsApp messages which had been passed between the four men — and others in their circle of friends — the day after the party.
But sleazy and puerile as those messages undoubtedly were, they were not evidence of rape.
There are plenty of young men — and indeed young women — whose mobile phone discourse wouldn’t look so great either when subjected to similar scrutiny.
Which brings us to another key question...
We all talk about the importance of treating young women and young men equally.
I fervently believe in that equality.
But it works both ways. Or should do.
Why should the complainant (female in this case) retain anonymity while those she accused (male in this case) did not? As fervently as I believe in equality, I also believe in openness and transparency.
But there may well be an argument to be made for all parties in such a case retaining anonymity.
That’s assuming, of course, their names can be kept out of social media.
The malign influence of social media upon this case and others like it has been noted by counsel.
It has been a messy, difficult, complex case.
As she dismissed the 11 jurors (one juror had earlier been excused because of illness), Judge Patricia Smyth addressed them with singular praise.
“This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on,” she said.
Judge Smyth has herself been exemplary. And whatever the buffeting of social media upon the integrity of her court, this case is unlikely to remain unique in that respect.
There will be more of this in future. Our legal system is facing a major challenge here. And finally, what of the complainant?
I find it very hard to be condemnatory of young women in general.
I used to be one myself. And we’ve all made mistakes.
And no one could ever blame her family for standing by her.
But without wishing to sound like an aforementioned armchair jurist, her version of events raised too many questions.
Above all, as was pointed out during the trial, that key moment when witness Dara Florence entered the bedroom.
You’re being raped and you don’t make even some small gesture to another young woman to signal distress?
Which brings us back again to the issue of why this case was ever taken in the first place.
A spokeswoman for the Public Prosecution Service maintains: “It was ultimately right that the matter was placed before a jury to make their determination.”
Justice has been served.