Belfast Telegraph

Rugby rape trial verdict: Jackson and Olding free to get on with new lives, knowing there is no way back to old ones

By Vincent Hogan

The men are innocent, but will they ever truly escape courtroom number twelve of Belfast Crown Court?

Truly? No. Acquittal might be one thing, the process of re-embracing any thread of normality in their lives quite another. For weeks now, TV and radio newsreaders have been compelled to preface bulletins with warnings about the 'upsetting' nature of the detail about to be re-traced across the airwaves.

In a different judicial precinct, the men could have remained anonymous. But Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison are household names to us all now and the stark reality is that no verdict had the capacity to power-hose away the images tossed out, almost daily, for public consumption since January.

The single human response to yesterday's decision was, thus, to feel conflicted.

If the conclusion of the court was that it could not be proved beyond reasonable doubt that what occurred between the complainant and Jackson and Olding had been non-consensual, the case still shone a depressing light upon male attitudes within a certain social strata towards women.

Suffice to say that the detailing of WhatsApp and text messages passing between the men in the immediate aftermath of the night in question communicated an ugly chauvinism that was acrid in tone and language.

That language hardly constituted a crime, Olding's counsel dismissing it as "a titillating sideshow of no evidential value". But it did leave an impression. One that, inevitably, finds stubborn traction still.

Professional sports people may have no written obligation to be pillars of rectitude, but you would hope for more than a vulgarly preserved adolescence too. Yesterday's verdict drew an understandably dispirited response from a variety of Rape Crisis Centres for whom adversarial justice systems act as a clear-cut discouragement to victims. The Public Prosecution Service did laud "the courage of the complainant and her family", encouraging others to "please do come forward".

But the brutal dimension to what unspooled in court these past months might not be too easily reconciled with that encouragement.

What is, however, beyond argument now is the rugby players' entitlement to resume their lives without prejudice. The IRFU and Ulster Rugby yesterday issued a joint statement, indicating that until the judicial proceedings concluded they had "postponed any internal review of the matter with the players".

They would now, it was confirmed, undertake that review "in line with existing procedures for all contracted players". Until its completion, the players would continue to be relieved of all duties.

Jackson's legal representative indicated that his client's priority now was to return to work and "that means going back on the rugby pitch".

Of the four in the dock, he was certainly the highest profile player and might reasonably have expected to have been a part of Ireland's Grand Slam winning squad this month had the case not, essentially, stalled his rugby career for a year.

It has been suggested that leading English and French clubs are now monitoring the case of the 26-year-old out-half, capped 25 times by Ireland at full senior level between 2013 and '17. And it might certainly appeal to him to seek out a new environment in which to resume his career in the professional game. Both Jackson and Olding are still listed as senior squad members on the Ulster Rugby website, with the former described as "pivotal to the ambitions of Ulster and Ireland". Yet, neither has played for the province in a year.

Perhaps there is a parable buried somewhere within this story, but for now it's difficult to identify any moral communicated, beyond, perhaps, a sermon on the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption.

Four men were cleared of a crime in a Belfast courtroom yesterday and walked out past the TV trucks afterwards into a street where some were still holding up placards, declaring "I believe her". Free to get on with new lives but knowing - deep down - there was no way back to their old ones.

Trial by numbers

The high-profile trial was originally scheduled for five weeks but lasted for nine at Belfast Crown Court.

30. In total, 30 witnesses gave evidence including the four defendants and the complainant whose testimony was heard over eight separate days. The verdicts were returned on day 42.

10. The court heard from 10 police officers, two doctors, a forensic scientist and a taxi driver who had driven the complainant home on the night in question.

11. When the trial opened on January 30, a total of 12 jurors were sworn in — nine men and three women. But about halfway through the panel was reduced to 11 after one juror was discharged because of illness. This left eight men and three women.

3.45. It took three hours and 45 minutes for the jury to reach the verdict following the trial. The jury was brought into court shortly before 12.30pm yesterday. Not guilty verdicts were returned for the four men charged in connection with the incident.

12. All four men stood in the glass dock of courtroom number 12 in the Laganside complex as the verdicts were read out. The judge had earlier warned members of the public not to react. There were emotional scenes outside the courtroom as family and friends of the accused hugged and kissed each other.

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