Ulster Rugby fans fund press ad calling on club to reinstate rape trial players Jackson and Olding
An advertisement paid for by fans of Ulster Rugby has been placed in today's Belfast Telegraph, calling on the club to reinstate players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding to the squad.
The full-page advert, funded by more than 100 supporters, described "the social media backlash" against the men - who were acquitted of rape last month - as "cyber prosecution".
It follows an advert crowdfunded by 139 members of the public, and printed last week in the Belfast Telegraph, calling for the players to be sacked.
It had described the content of the players' lurid WhatsApp messages, which formed part of the evidence in the marathon trial at Belfast Crown Court, as "reprehensible".
But the new advert, addressed to the leadership of the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby said: "What is reprehensible is the extent of the social media backlash aimed at incriminating men unanimously acquitted of any crime. We are fed up with this cyber persecution.
"As Ulster and Irish rugby fans, we want these innocent men reinstated and rightly allowed to resume their roles for both club and country. The IRFU should take note of the silent majority and not bow to the court of social media.
"We do not expect an answer to this letter, but we do expect them to play. Yours, Real fans standing up for the Ulster men."
It took a jury of eight men and three women less than four hours to find Mr Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (25) not guilty of rape. Mr Jackson was cleared of a further charge of sexual assault. Two other men, Blane McIlroy (26) and Rory Harrison (25), were also cleared of charges against them linked to the same incident in June 2016.
Mr Jackson and Mr Olding are currently subject to an internal review by the IRFU and Ulster Rugby to decide whether or not they should be allowed to play for the teams again.
One of the men behind today's advertisement, a 35-year-old Belfast-based business owner, said he and a group of rugby fans wanted to send a message to the sportsmen that they do have backing amid the ongoing fallout from the high-profile case.
"Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding went through a nine-week trial and were acquitted of the charges against them," said the life-long rugby fan, who did not wish to be named. "They should be back playing for Ulster and Ireland.
"They have apologised for the content of the messages and that, to many of us, feels like enough.
"It's not that I or anyone else thinks the messages they sent were not a big deal. But the fact is I can't imagine there's a person anywhere in Northern Ireland who wouldn't be appalled at the thought of their private messages and correspondence being picked through in public. We've all offended someone at some point. These men have been upfront, they've said sorry for what they said and to continue to protest so viciously after people have apologised just isn't right in my view.
"It's the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and if that shows us anything, it's that we've forgiven people for a whole lot worse.
"I don't know where people want this to end for Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Ruin their careers, and then what?
"By all accounts they're decent young lads and they've faced up to what they've done. There are a lot of people out here who think a line has to be drawn under this now. They need to be allowed to get on with their lives."
The supporter was among a group of fans who decided to pay for a newspaper advert following one which ran in the Belfast Telegraph last week which demanded the men be dropped by Ulster and Ireland.
That advert, organised by Belfast native Anna Nolan (34), who now lives in Glasgow, said the players' behaviour "falls far beneath the standards that your organisations represent and as such we demand that neither of these men represents Ulster or Ireland now or at any point in the future. We expect an answer to this letter. Yours, concerned fans."
Last night, the organiser of today's advert questioned whether the people behind Friday's letter to Ulster Rugby were "genuine fans". He said: "There is a large group of us who attend around 10 home games together every season, who always get to a couple of away games, and we have not heard anyone that has backed this sort of movement.
"For the genuine fans, while opinions differ of course, the overriding feeling is that Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding should be back playing in the team. They've said sorry, it's time to move on. We need them back on the field."
A spokesperson for the IRFU and Ulster Rugby said: "A review process in relation to this matter is under way and it would be inappropriate to comment on any matter pertaining to that process until it is completed."