Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: There were always bound to be consequences once messages came to light

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Those who still think that Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were treated badly in having their contracts revoked by the Irish Rugby Football Union, despite recently being found not guilty of rape at the High Court in Belfast, should ask themselves how the decision on their futures could have gone any other way.

Imagine that the two men had lined up for Ulster on Friday night against Welsh side Ospreys. What kind of message would that have sent to young fans in the stadium, or watching on TV at home, as the crowd cheered on men who'd spoken about young women in such revolting and disparaging terms?

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Stuart Olding

Just picture the mess into which Irish rugby could have been dragged as it struggled to defend itself against what was bound to be fierce criticism, and with corporate sponsors taking fright.

Sacking the two men "with immediate effect" could be seen as bowing to mob rule, but here's the thing. Sometimes the mob is right.

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Paddy Jackson

As such, it's wise not to ignore or outrage public sentiment, or take our loyalty for granted.

It must be deeply unpleasant to be at the centre of a media storm when you've done nothing wrong. Just ask Sir Cliff Richard. But that's not what happened here.

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Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson after Ulster match

Jackson and Olding are not guilty of rape, but that's not why they're now facing the shame of being dropped by Irish rugby. They're being punished for the WhatsApp messages which were sent the morning after the house party at which the complainant alleged she'd been raped.

No one denies they were responsible for those messages.

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Belfast Feminist Network activists hold a protest outside the Kingspan Stadium in east Belfast ahead of Ulster's Pro14 match against the Ospreys

 

They're being punished for something that they did, in other words, not for something that they didn't.

Now it could be that rugby fans should never have seen those messages.

If, as in the Irish Republic, rape trials were held behind closed doors to protect the anonymity both of complainants and defendants, the contents of those messages might never have seen the light of day, and the men could have slipped back into their ordinary lives without a fuss. That's certainly a discussion which needs to be had.

But whether we should've seen those messages or not, the fact is that we did, and we can't unsee what we saw or unknow what we now know.

Once those messages were out in the public domain, it was bound to change the way that Jackson and Olding were regarded by the general public.

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Rory Harrison

Everyone has said terrible things in jest or high spirits, but those messages were about a young woman who'd left their company in a distressed state. It may be expecting too much to demand courtly chivalry in this age of casual "hook ups", but that's no excuse for being so luridly unkind.

Once those messages were seen outside the small circle of friends for whom they were intended, there were bound to be consequences. In this case, the repercussions are severe. Both men will now have to leave their homes and families and ply their trade abroad, separating them for the foreseeable future from a club and a group of fans to which they clearly feel a deep attachment.

But what alternative was there? Irish rugby would only have damaged itself by defending the indefensible.

To their credit, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have both accepted their punishment with dignity. The important thing now is what happens next. The Ulster Rugby/IRFU statement promised to start an "in depth review" of the structures in the game to ensure that the core values of "respect, inclusivity and integrity" are understood and practised "at every level".

They'll be judged on those actions. Society and sport will be better in the long run as a result.

Belfast Telegraph

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