02:04, April 09 77 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-09 02:04:12
Online support grows for women after rugby stars' rape acquittal

There have been rallies and placards, headlines and hashtags; the seismic fallout of the acquittal of two high-profile Irish international rugby stars following the Belfast rape case has been profound.

“I think it’s Ireland’s collective #MeToo moment,” said Clare Bailey, MLA for South Belfast. Women were sharing their own experiences, with the trial as catalyst. “The anger is palpable.”

During the nine-week hearing – at the end of which Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson, 26, and Stuart Olding, 25, were unanimously acquitted of raping a 21-year-old woman at a party at Jackson’s Belfast home – the threat of causing a mistrial silenced much public comment.

But after the verdict collective anger was unleashed across the internet and across the island, with demonstrations in the Irish Republic and in Northern Ireland.

The hashtag #IBelieveHer is trending, Facebook pages have been launched, women are speaking out, and activists are lobbying for change to the criminal justice system.

“It really is ‘enough is enough’. [The trial] was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Hazel Katherine Larkin, spokeswoman for Action Against Sexual Violence Ireland (AASVI), a group formed within hours of the verdict.

“Because we’d been a bit nice around toxic masculinity. We were trying to speak up for ourselves, and there’s the #MeToo movement. But we were still finding it difficult to have our voices heard,” Larkin added.

The trial dominated media coverage. The complainant was subject to eight days of cross-examination from barristers. Apart from Jackson and Olding, the Ulster rugby player Blane McIlroy, 26, and Rory Harrison, 25, were also acquitted, the former of indecent exposure, the latter of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

This “palpable” anger is now directed at the criminal justice system’s treatment of sexual assault complainants and the toxic masculine culture often revealed in WhatsApp messages. A WhatsApp group the players belonged to featured members boasting of being “shaggers”, “pumping a bird” and referred to “spit-roasting” and to “Belfast sluts”. Last week Jackson apologised for the messages.

“It’s brutal misogyny. Women know it’s there because they’re subjected to it, and they carry these experiences. And it is so normalised people don’t even realise they can speak out and challenge it,” said Bailey. “We’re living under this all the time. I do believe women have been empowered to speak out. Certainly, from my experience, so many people are coming forward and telling me about their experiences.”

Police said that incidents of domestic and sexual violence were at an all-time high, Bailey said. Northern Ireland, where the devolved government collapsed more than one year ago, had no domestic abuse legislation and women’s support services and refuges were being cut, she said.

“I want Westminster to remember that they are responsible for human rights, and that every citizen in Northern Ireland is under their jurisdiction,” she added.

Activists crowdfunded an advert in the Belfast Telegraph calling for both Jackson and Olding to be dropped by Ulster and Ireland. Another #IBelieveHer rally is planned for Friday 13 April, outside the Ulster Kingspan Stadium, at their first home game since the end of the trial. The players are suspended while a review is conducted.

At the end of the trial an I Believe Her Ireland Facebook page was set up for women to share their own experiences. It was not a platform for debate, said its creator, Mary [not her real name]. “It is to provide an outlet for people hurt by sexual violence, a place for them to offload, to get support, rather than a response to the trial itself.” The page has been inundated.

In the week after the acquittals, almost 100 women have submitted accounts of experiences, ranging from rape to sexual coercion; often the reports were being articulated for the first time.

Mary felt compelled to set up the Facebook page “just because of the number of women I knew personally that have been through horrendous experiences”.

She believes Ireland’s #MeToo moment has empowered many to open up. It was a watershed, she said. “This is all of us. Not one of us. This is happening to everyone to a greater or lesser degree.”

She said the laddish culture the trial exposed through the WhatsApp messages was dreadful, but there “were things you may have heard growing up, it’s pervasive”. Conversations about consent had to take place, in schools, universities and sports clubs, she said.

Anger also propelled the establishment of AASVI, based in Dublin, which will now lobby for changes to the criminal justice system and for consent education. It favours Iceland’s landmark law, passed last month, which put the onus on defendants to prove consent was given, rather than complainants having to prove it was not.

“Our arcane legal system is not fit for purpose. It is a system invented by privileged men to further privilege privileged men,” said Larkin. “It lacks compassion and understanding and it is not victim-centric. It’s not just women saying ‘we have had enough’, men are also saying it.”

The trial had such impact, she believed, “because it was every woman’s worst nightmare in one trial”. She said it included multiple defendants at a party, bile from defence lawyers during the complainant’s eight-day cross-examination, and “having your knickers passed around the court, as if a jury could tell anything by looking at them”.

Then there was the hatred for women revealed in the WhatsApp messages. “There is an element of #MeToo about it, in terms of women just standing together, raising our voices and demanding to be heard,” Larkin said. “I think it is just pretty dreadful that one woman had to go through what she did to amplify and exemplify what goes on, literally, behind closed doors. But, she is an inspiration and she has inspired many of us to speak our truth, and we will continue doing so.”

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