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#IBelieveHer protesters face backlash after Belfast rape acquittals

A gruelling rape trial ended in the acquittal of rugby players, prompting online outrage, offline protests – and a backlash from lawyers and men’s rights activists.

A protest in Dublin, in support of the woman at the centre of the 'Belfast rape case'. A protest in Dublin, in support of the woman at the centre of the 'Belfast rape case'. Photo: Tom Honan/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.The long legal drama that became known as the ‘Belfast rape case’ concluded on Wednesday 28 March with the acquittal of four young men. Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were cleared of rape charges; their friend Blane McIlroy was cleared of exposure, and friend Rory Harrison was cleared of perverting the course of justice and withholding information. Jackson was also cleared of sexual assault.

The 11-person jury (eight men, three women) deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes before coming to unanimous ‘not-guilty’ verdicts.

This case and the jury’s decision have come at a time of historic mobilisation for the rights of women in the region – and in the days after the verdicts thousands of people took part in protests supporting the complainant, and calling for changes in how rape cases are prosecuted, in Belfast, Dublin, Derry and Cork.

#IBelieveHer trended on social media worldwide and was met with an extraordinary backlash, with legal threats against those using this hashtag and a counter-movement of men’s rights activists and tweeters under an #IBelieveThem banner.

Acquittals on rape charges are not uncommon in Northern Ireland, where last year only 5% of rape cases reported to police lead to charges being brought against the alleged perpetrators. What’s unusual in this case is the high- public profile of the men involved, two of whom are sports stars for Ireland and Ulster rugby teams.

The nine-week trial attracted huge public interest and ongoing coverage of it made for grisly reading. Details of bloody underwear and vaginal tears heard in court were reported in real time on Twitter by an army of reporters. Whatsapp messages from the defendants, referring to ‘spit-roasting’ and ‘Belfast sluts,’ further inflamed opinions.

“The details [of the case] were so traumatic, I think that is why everyone was incensed,” said Siobhan McKenna, who attended one of the demonstrations in Dublin.

The Irish rugby team is an all-Ireland team supported by both Catholic and Protestant communities within Northern Ireland. Current champions of the Triple Crown rugby honour, they made every Irish heart soar when they beat England to win the Six Nations Championship on St Patrick’s Day last month.

The Irish Rugby and Football Union (IRFU), and Ulster Rugby, said that following the outcome of the trial they are conducting a review into the future of both players, Jackson and Olding, who were “relieved of their duties” after the four men were charged in July last year.

Ireland rugby player Paddy Jackson (centre) speaking outside Belfast Crown Court, 28 March 2018. Ireland rugby player Paddy Jackson (centre) speaking outside Belfast Crown Court, 28 March 2018. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.But, McKenna told me, “there will be a big fight before they are back in the green jersey.” She said: “It’s just kicking a ball around a field, it’s not like they are curing cancer, so why do they not have to live by the same rules as other men?”

“Mná na hÉireann (women of Ireland) are really fucking cross and this is an opportunity to let people know that we will not be second-class citizens any longer – whether that is in a bar in Belfast or a hospital in Dublin,” she added. 

A Change.org petition signed by more than 69,000 people – and counting – was started after the verdicts emerged. It calls on the Irish rugby team to “conduct a thorough review” of the players’ behaviour and “make the findings public” before considering them for the team again.

The petition says that though the players were found not-guilty, “the trial highlighted worrying conduct,” including the Whatsapp messages which were read out in court. It says: “The Irish rugby team act as ambassadors of Ireland. We do not want other countries to think that this behaviour and these attitudes are representative of Irish people.”

"This is an opportunity to let people know that we will not be second-class citizens any longer – whether that is in a bar in Belfast or a hospital in Dublin."

Over the Easter weekend, I was part of a crowdfunding campaign to pay for a full-page advert in the Belfast Telegraph calling for the Ulster and Irish rugby teams to drop the players because of the behaviour they admitted in court. 139 of us raised £2,000 in 36 hours, and placed the ad on Friday 6 April.

After the ad appeared, Jackson released a public statement in which he said that he would “always regret” what happened and apologised “unreservedly” for the Whatsapp messages sent between himself and the other defendants, which were read out in court.

The messages become a rallying point of the #IBelieveHer protests; are they violent displays of toxic masculinity, or the ‘locker room banter’ of boastful young men, eager to bond with each other?

Police were unable to retrieve the full Whatsapp conversation as several messages were deleted. However, glimpses of the conversations were read out in court:

“There was a bit of spit roasting going on last night fellas.”

“It was like a merry-go-round at a carnival.”

“There was a lot of spit.”

“We are all top shaggers.”

“Love Belfast sluts.”

“Boys, did you pass spit roast brassers?”

“What the f*** was going on. Last night was hilarious.”

“Why are we such legends.”

“I know it’s ridiculous.”

“Mate, no joke. She was in hysterics, wasn’t going to end well.”

“Really, f*** sake, did you calm her? Where does she live?”

“Aye, just threw her home then went back to mine.”

Whatsapp messages from the woman, who was 19 years old at the time, were also read out in court. One message, sent to her friend, said: “I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea because that’ll work.”

Under Northern Irish law, the complainant has the lifelong right to anonymity, but the public gallery during the trial was open and packed every day, and her name was mentioned in court multiple times.

A member of the public posted her name in the comments section of an online news site. It is a criminal offence to name any complainant in rape cases, but that hasn’t stopped the spread of rumours about, and threats against, her.

After the verdict, Jackson’s lawyer mentioned her (not by name) in a speech to reporters. “Consistency has never been a feature of the complainant's evidence, long before she entered the witness box. So these acquittals should come as no surprise to anyone,” said Joe McVeigh, partner at one of Ireland’s leading law firms, KRW Human Rights Law.

McVeigh declined to comment when contacted by 50.50 this week on either the legal action against those tweeting #IBelieveHeror or his comments outside court.

A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) spokesperson told 50.50 that the force is investigating two cases of the complainant being named online. Two people have been interviewed in relation to this, they said, but the claimant’s name remains online, along with a picture which purports to be her.

Women in Ireland are already on fire at the moment in the run-up to the repeal the eighth campaign,” McKenna told me, referring to the referendum on abortion in the Republic of Ireland, which has one of the most restrictive laws on this issue in the world.

“It’s all part of it; it’s gender pay reports in the UK, it’s #MeToo, it’s #TimesUp, it’s #repealthe8th, it’s women all over the world just saying: you know, it’s 2018 now and enough is enough.”

As #IBelieveHer protests snowballed, Jackson’s lawyers issued a notice of intention to sue an Irish politician, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, for a tweet including the hashtag.They also released a statement saying that they would “not hesitate” to take action against anyone who defamed the player. Ó Ríordáin has since deleted his tweet and issued an apology.

These threats from Jackson’s lawyers prompted a new hashtag #SueMePaddy – an example of the so-called ‘Streisand effect,’ where efforts to censor information online backfire.

“I’m entitled to my opinion and to express it. I thought OJ was guilty as well,” said McKenna. “They are trying to police women’s anger.”

There has also been an online backlash, with a counter-movement of men’s rights activists and tweeters under an #IBelieveThem and #IBelieveTheJury banner.

I'm entitled to my opinion and to express it. I thought OJ was guilty as well. They are trying to police women's anger."

Personally, I’ve had to block anonymous Twitter accounts that I believe were set up with the specific intention to troll me; they were new accounts with no followers who only tweeted at me. I’ve been challenged online by men claiming to be “real” rugby fans to “prove” my own fan credentials, and had my voice mocked after being grilled on local radio in Northern Ireland explaining why I decided to get involved in the debate.

A second crowdfunding campaign, to raise money for an advert calling for the players to be reinstated on their teams, exceeded its own £2,000 target. The subsequent full page advert in the Belfast Telegraph, placed on Wednesday 11 April, was signed by “real fans standing up for the Ulster men.” It condemned “the extent of the social media backlash aimed at incriminating men unanimously acquitted of any crime.”

“We are fed up with this cyber persecution,” it read. "We want these innocent men reinstated and rightly allowed to resume their roles for both club and country.”

Peter Morris is chair of The Men and Boys Initiative in Northern Ireland and Scotland and one of several men who changed his Twitter name to #IBelieveThem. He sees the #IBelieveHer protests as the work of “radical feminists who can’t contain themselves.”

“This ‘I believe’ mantra” which he said the police have also adopted “has to stop,” Morris told me from his home in Edinburgh. “If you start from that premise – believing one party – then you have to disbelieve the other, then it’s not a fair process from the beginning; there are lots of false allegations,” he claimed.

UK fact-checking charity Full Fact has looked into the issue of false rape allegations and concluded that 3-4% is a reasonable estimate for malicious complaints, based on evidence from England and Wales.

“Everyone should be anonymous” in sexual assault cases, Morris said. “There have been too many cases like this recently, where cases are falling apart and men are being cleared on a daily basis but their lives are ruined, regardless, because they are named straight away.”

"Men are being cleared on a daily basis but their lives are ruined, regardless."

In the Republic of Ireland, rape trials are not open to the public and no one is named; in the UK, including in Northern Ireland, names are released after charges are brought. Morris said that he thinks it would be fairer to keep everyone’s identity secret until the verdict – if it’s guilty then those found guilty should be named; if it’s not guilty then the name of the complainant should be put on a “register” for “false accusers.”

This is a problematic and potentially misleading claim, however, as there are generally only two verdicts possible in a criminal case in this legal system: ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’. A ‘guilty’ verdict is given where guilt has been proven beyond reasonable doubt in the eyes of a jury, judge, or magistrates. ‘Not guilty’ verdicts are given in any case where guilt has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Morris also claimed that there was a class element to the #IBelieveHer protests. It’s about “targeting white, middle-class men,” he told me, asking: “Where were these protests for Máiría Cahill? Where was her solidarity?”

In October 2014, Irish politician and former Labour senator Máiría Cahill waived her own right to lifelong anonymity to publicly accuse a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) of sexually abusing her as a teenager. She followed the trial closely.

Cahill bristled when I put Morris’s question directly to her. “I wasn’t thinking like that at all about the protests,” she said. “I felt an affinity with [the complainant], and I thought it was a positive thing for people to see what women have to go through when they take a case to court.”

She contrasted how the claimant’s cross-examination lasted for eight days while each defendant spent just half a day on the stand. Cahill’s own legal case collapsed after she withdrew support for prosecution, though she has never withdrawn her allegations. 

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph on 30 March, she explained some of the toll her ordeal: “Had I gone into court, I would have been faced with five sets of legal teams, split across three trials. On the morning of the first trial, I had had enough.”

She is also critical of the tone taken by Jackson’s lawyers in their public comments. She told me: “I thought the comments about the complainant were out of order and had I been the complainant I would have been very pissed off.”

Cahill is keen to stress that some positive changes have been made since her own trial. “Rapes have increased significantly this year from last year in Northern Ireland, so that means that more people are coming forward to report,” she said.

“But conviction rates haven’t jumped any. Now that could be for a number of reasons”, she continued, “but I’d like those reasons to be looked into carefully.”

“Who would dare to stick their hand up and report now?” McKenna asked me. “I went to the streets largely for [the complainant]. I wanted her to see the crowds and I hope she has taken comfort from it.”

“I don’t know if it will help her right now, but she has been part of perpetuating a national conversation on the rights of women in this country,” McKenna added. “And that’s quite a legacy.”

About the author

Lara Whyte is an investigative journalist and award-winning documentary and news producer focusing on issues of youth, extremism and women’s rights. Originally from Belfast in northern Ireland, Lara is based in London. She is 50.50's special projects editor working with our feminist investigative journalism fellows and tracking the backlash against sexual and reproductive rights. Find her on Twitter: @larawhyte.


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