Northern Ireland justice system under spotlight as protesters vent fury outside court
The trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding may be over, but there was a bigger crowd outside Laganside courts in Belfast yesterday than there had been in the 42 days the case ran.
On Wednesday, the two Ireland and Ulster players were unanimously acquitted of rape by a jury.
But up to 1,000 people yesterday protested over the handling of the high-profile trial. The demonstration was peaceful and powerful, but also laced with anger.
They had turned out, they said, in support of the young woman at the centre of the case, with many attaching posters and yellow roses to the metal security railings at the court.
Others carried the flowers, in a nod to the Suffragette movement, and said they felt compelled to be there to stand in solidarity with all victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse.
Organised by Reclaim the Night Belfast, which campaigns against gender-based violence and harassment, the rally was one of six across Ireland.
The trial’s conclusion was met with a torrent of online responses expressing dissatisfaction.
Banners bearing slogans such as “Justice for Women Now” and “Rape Trial Reform Now” were held aloft at the demonstration.
There was also strong criticism from the event organisers of the justice system and the treatment of people who claim they have been raped.
When Green Party MLA Clare Bailey took to the podium, she praised “so many who had turned out at such short notice” and said they were all there “in anger at a judicial system that has failed so many”.
“We want to send a clear message to those victims and survivors who have been impacted by recent events, and in those that have yet to come, that rape is never a victim’s fault”, she told the crowd to rapturous applause.
“Here, today, we’re standing because we need to be heard because over the past nine weeks so many victims and so many survivors have been retraumatised.
“Too often, our experiences as women go unaddressed by a system that continues to fail us. So, today, let me remind everyone that rape, sexual violence, domestic violence and all gender-based violence is not about sex, drugs, drink or what you wear — it is about power, it is about control.”
On Wednesday, Mr Jackson and Mr Olding were found not guilty of raping the same woman in Belfast in June 2016. Mr Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault.
Their friend, Blane McIlroy, was acquitted of exposure, and another friend, Rory Harrison, was cleared of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
The nine-week trial sparked heated debate about the operation of the criminal justice system, media reporting of rape trials and social media reaction to live court cases.
Employment advisor Shannon Shivers (24), from Castledawson, brought her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Mollie, to yesterday’s demonstration because “it’s important for her to see me stand in solidarity”.
She expressed concern over the impact of social media in the rugby rape case and said it was an issue that would continue to play a significant role in future court cases.
“I have a massive issue with the part social media played in this particular case. It’s something that should be considered in the event of judicial reform,” she said.
“Events like this are an important way in which we can show our general support for all rape survivors and all victims of sexual abuse. They shouldn’t suffer alone.”
Post-graduate student Kyrialos Kareklas (30), who is originally from Cyprus but lives in Belfast, said he believed there should be a review of how the criminal justice system handles alleged sexual crimes.
“There definitely needs to be changes in how rape cases are dealt with in Northern Ireland courts,” he said. “It seems that there can be a huge burden on victims to prove their innocence, with them almost having to relive their experiences.
“Compared to other types of crime, more attention tends to fall on the actions and comments of complainants, and the correct mechanisms need to be in place to deal with that.”
Phillip McCrilly (29), a curator from Belfast who was at the rally “to show solidarity with all sexual assault victims”, said he was concerned over the publicity in the case.
“It’s an awful thing that the complainant was named (online) in this case,” he added.
“There have been abusive comments and death threats on social media. These are serious issues that need to be addressed for future cases.”
Students Robyn Livingstone (20), cousin Aoife Livingstone (21) and Jane Doran (20) focused their criticism on the treatment of complainants.
“The criminal justice treatment and media reporting of this trial will deter victims from coming forward and reporting in the future,” Aoife said.
Robyn added: “I don’t think the criminal justice system is fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with sexual crimes.”
And Jane said: “If I was a victim of rape, I’m not sure I’d have the confidence to take it through the courts.”