Women's Aid to meet Ulster Rugby chiefs to urge change of culture in the sport
The head of Women's Aid in Northern Ireland has said Ulster Rugby and the IRFU have agreed to meet with her organisation in a move she believes "signals a willingness to change".
Jan Melia told the Belfast Telegraph that she hoped the meeting will take place in the next month, and described the organisations' decision to sack Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding following an internal review of their conduct as "prudent".
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Mr Jackson and Mr Olding, who were acquitted of raping the same woman after a nine-week trial that ended last month, were dismissed by Ulster and Ireland at the weekend.
The joint IRFU and Ulster Rugby review had focused on a series of sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations involving the players and their friends, which were presented as evidence during the trial.
The messages referred to women in derogatory terms. Ms Melia said she was "happy" that Ulster Rugby and the IRFU had agreed to meet with Women's Aid NI, and that her organisation hoped to "support and change the culture and ensure the organisations' ethos is upheld".
Last week Women's Aid NI announced it was to launch a new rape crisis service in collaboration with Nexus NI and the Men's Advisory Project after support charities became "inundated" with calls in the wake of the Belfast trial.
In yesterday's Belfast Telegraph the three organisations joined with Victim Support NI to take out a full-page advert that revealed they had written to the permanent secretary of the Department of Justice and the Lord Chief Justice to "formally request an immediate independent review of how the criminal justice system handles sexual violence cases".
In a statement the Lord Chief Justice's Office said Sir Declan Morgan had "begun discussions" with trial judge Patricia Smyth and other senior Crown Court judges over how to deal with some of the issues.
Speaking last night, Ms Melia revealed: "We have spoken to the training officers at the IRFU and Ulster Rugby, who have agreed to a meeting, and we hope to see if there is anything we can do to support the organisations.
"For us, I think it's about what we can do to support and change the culture and ensure the organi
"I think the decision to sack Jackson and Olding was prudent.
"Someone needs to say: 'That's not what we expect our players to do'. It's a clear statement that needed to be made.
"We want players that we can look up to."
Ms Melia said that her group runs initiatives such as the "social guardian" model, which trains individuals in organisations on how to respond to domestic and sexual violence issues.
"We want to roll it out across sports clubs, particularly rugby clubs," she added.
"We train in consent, sexual violence and how to respond if you are in those situations.
"I'm happy that the IRFU and Ulster Rugby have agreed to a meeting.
"It signals a willingness to change, and that there is an issue they want to address and will take steps to address.
"The IRFU and Ulster Rugby need to make a good, solid start in dealing with this, and when they have done that they will find that the kind of training we do complements their training.
"For me, the whole question of gender and consent and how to respect yourself and others should be everywhere as a matter of course."
Ulster Rugby and the IRFU were asked for a comment but hadn't responded by the time of going to press.