Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: She may feel like loneliest woman in the world, but solidarity should give her comfort

By Suzanne Breen

As she left Belfast Crown Court, the complainant in the Ulster rugby rape case will surely have felt like the loneliest woman in the world.

The police told us she was "upset and disappointed with the outcome". That's likely a massive under-statement. The 42-day trial will have been the most emotionally challenging time of this young woman's life. Let us remember she is just 21-years-old.

She will have felt defeated and deflated with the verdict. Paddy Jackson and his legal team spoke to media at the front of the courthouse - surrounded by family, friends and supporters. She left almost unnoticed via a side entrance.

But however overwhelming those feelings of despondency and isolation may have been in the immediate aftermath of the verdict, yesterday will have given her reasons for hope.

On both sides of the border, thousands of women and men joined protests against the handling of the case.

In Belfast, they tied yellow roses - the symbol of the Suffragettes - to the Laganside court railings.

Homemade placards expressed solidarity with the complainant and called for changes in how the criminal justice system deals with sexual violence allegations. "Stand up for the Ulster woman," one declared. "Break the silence" and "I believe her" others read.

Young schoolgirls sat high on their fathers' shoulders so they could see proceedings. The mood at the gathering was about delivering change for the next generation of women.

Hundreds attended the Belfast rally. To rapturous applause, Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said they were sending out "a clear message to those victims and survivors who have been impacted by recent events". In Dublin, over 1,000 people gathered at the GPO, blocking O'Connell Street. Crowds also assembled in Cork, Waterford, Galway, Limerick and Londonderry. It was an impressive turnout across the island of Ireland for protests that had been called at a few hours' notice.

Social media has been relentlessly criticised following this trial. But it is wrong to argue that the role it has played has been entirely negative.

Through Twitter and Facebook, ordinary folk have been able to offer support and solidarity to a young woman they have never met but with whom they strongly empathise.

The voices of the plain people are just as legitimate and valuable as those of any lawyer, judge or journalist. They have a right to be heard.

The men charged were unanimously found not guilty by the jury. Yet, contrary to what some may believe, that doesn't mean the young woman did anything wrong.

On Thursday evening, dozens of new tweets supporting her appeared every minute. The power of this case extends far beyond the bedroom or the courtroom. It has struck a chord with the next generation of women who are raising their voices to challenge sexism.

Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, and Blane McIlroy were completely cleared of the charges they faced. But that doesn't make the messages they exchanged on social media acceptable. If they spoke about black people or Catholics in the derogatory way they referred to women, would society tolerate it? Would they represent their province or country again?

'Spit roasting' is a term which should be used only in connection with cooking a dead animal. It should never be employed in conversation about a living, breathing female human being.

For me, this young woman showed remarkable spirit and bravery during the trial. Early in proceedings, she broke down in tears after being shown footage of her police interview recorded two days after the party. But, as the trial continued, she found huge reservoirs of strength. Being cross-examined by four defence barristers over eight days will have been exhausting. Her sheer courage will hopefully allow her to rebuild her life. And may she take comfort from yesterday's protests. She is not alone.

Belfast Telegraph

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