Belfast Telegraph

Protesters gather outside stadium at club whose players were acquitted of rape

Campaigners have called for action against what they consider a misogynistic culture in the sport.

Around 250 people have staged a protest outside Ulster Rugby’s stadium ahead of the team’s first home game since two players were acquitted of rape.

Paddy Jackson, 26, and his 25-year-old Ireland and Ulster teammate Stuart Olding remain relieved of playing duties after being found not guilty of raping the same woman at a house party at Jackson’s home.

Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) are conducting a review into the incident in June 2016, with much focus now on a series of sexually explicit WhatsApp conversations revealed during the trial involving the players and their friends.

Fellow Ulster and Ireland star Craig Gilroy, who was not involved in the trial, is also subject to a review because he was the author of one of the offensive messages which referred to women in derogatory terms.

Demonstrators gathered outside the Kingspan Stadium in east Belfast ahead of Ulster’s Pro14 match against the Ospreys to express solidarity with the woman at the centre of the case and call for changes to how complainants in rape trials are treated by the criminal justice system.

They also called for action against what they claim is a misogynistic culture within rugby.

The picket was organised by the Belfast Feminist Network.

Participant Aisling Cowan travelled from Larne, Co Antrim to attend.

“We want to see a change at Ulster Rugby,” she said.

Belfast Feminist Network activists hold a protest outside the Kingspan Stadium (Liam McBurney/PA)

“This is about a toxic masculine culture that was really clear and became very prevalent during the trial.

“I am here as a woman to stand shoulder to shoulder with people to say women deserve better.

“We are not second-class citizens in Northern Ireland and we deserve to be treated just as well as the Ulster men.”

An intense debate on the players’ future has been played out in newsprint and online since the verdicts.

Campaigners calling for Jackson and Olding to be axed took out a prominent newspaper ad last week.

Demonstrators expressed solidarity with the woman at the centre of the case (Liam McBurney/PA)

Supporters demanding their reinstatement followed suit with their own newspaper advert this week.

Thousands of people on both sides of the argument have also signed competing online petitions reflecting their views.

Last month, a jury of eight men and three women found Jackson and Olding unanimously not guilty of rape after deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes after a marathon nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court.

All jurors also acquitted Jackson of sexual assault.

Two other men, Blane McIlroy, 26, and Rory Harrison, 25, were also unanimously acquitted of lesser charges connected to the alleged incident.

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