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01st Apr 2018

‘Why are we all such legends?’ The inside story of the Belfast rape trial

Rosanna Cooney

It is snowing across Ireland and Paddy Jackson is supposed to be giving evidence in his own rape trial in Belfast. The gallery is packed, word has gotten out that he is taking the stand. His suit and tie are gone. Instead he wears a crew neck jumper and a new haircut. The public gallery is full. The photographers have taken their pictures outside the courtroom gates.

In the minutes before the judge arrives, Blane McIIroy and Stuart Olding sit together. Olding is wringing his hands and McIIroy’s leg is bouncing up and down, up and down. McIIroy offers Olding a Trebor XXX mint and he stops wringing his hands for a moment to take one.

Soon the news reaches the court that a juror is ill and court will not sit that day. The men are released from the dock.

And as they return to the public gallery, Jackson turns to Olding and says, “Let’s go enjoy the snow”.

In the courtroom the relationships between the men remain strong. At no stage during the trial did they seem divided. They didn’t appear to have fallen out because “a girl from Monday night might have cried rape”.

Courtroom 12 became these men’s world for nearly nine weeks. If there was an informality between them, it was because the courthouse became familiar, not because they were unaware of the seriousness of the charges.

At lunch, they would sit together in Café Legal, sometimes their families merged, sometimes it was just the guys.  Outside the courtroom in the corridor they would stand and chat, every now and then laughing amongst themselves.

At the end, when the trial was over and they were found not guilty of all charges, the relief that they were free of the courtroom and all its trappings was audible. “Fucking hell,” said McIIroy to Harrison patting his friend on the stomach as they left through the double doors for the last time.

The four men will now attempt to return to their lives. Maybe Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding will play for Ireland again. Legally there is no reason that they can’t.

Cleared of all charges, the trial will always be with them, as it will for the complainant, the woman who alleged she was raped that night in Paddy Jackson’s house. She is entitled to lifelong anonymity, but her identity is known to anyone who attended Courtroom 12.

These five people are joined in the public consciousness because of a night in June, 2016 that brought them together.

‘The Happiest Man in Belfast’

Paddy Jackson was with his friends Stuart Olding and Rory Harrison when Les Kiss called on an afternoon in June. Jackson had just ordered some pancakes in the Town Square restaurant when he answered the phone to the head of Ulster Rugby.

He was home from a tour to South Africa with the Irish rugby team. Things were looking up. He was confident his name was beginning to feature on the main stage, he was playing well and he was on his holidays. Surrounded by old friends in the city where he went to school, where he grew up and where women asked to take photos with him, Paddy Jackson was, by his own account, the “happiest man in Belfast”.

The happiest man in Belfast had spent the week hanging out with his friends since he returned from the tour. Belfast was his town and since his days as a schoolboy star at Methody, doors had opened for him which might not open for others.

On the Monday previously, Jackson had a night out, a night of drink and watching sport and friends, a night that would not be considered memorable ordinarily, except that 20 months later, every word, every message, every action, would become freighted with significance.

It was a day of homecomings and celebrations for the Belfast crowd who would later descend on Monopollie, the Monday night at Ollie’s nightclub where entry is £5 and drinks are £2.50. Summer had arrived and holidays were being planned.

The woman, who sat her final exams that month, was out to celebrate with her friends, pre-drinking at the house of one of them before heading to the cathedral quarter and then to Ollie’s.

At the same time Jackson and Olding, who were back from South Africa where the Irish rugby team won one game of three against the Springboks, were over in Blane McIIroy’s house drinking beer and hanging out. McIIroy was home from America for a few weeks but was heading back to finish his degree in Life University, Atlanta, Georgia. In the house, too, was Rory Harrison who just had flown into Belfast from Majorca where he and his family were celebrating his father’s 60th birthday.

The night would take the four men to Cutter’s bar for pints of Guinness and then to Ollie’s nightclub. It was here, in the VIP section of the club, that the rugby players, the Northern Irish football team and a woman who was celebrating her exams ended up. But it wasn’t until throwing out time that the men and the woman’s night’s collided. CCTV footage shown frame by frame in Courtroom 12 showed the tempo of the night. The Will Grigg’s On Fire anthem rang out from men in t-shirts, while women in summer dresses milled around.

From outside the club two taxis left to bring an after-party of four men and four women to Paddy Jackson’s five-bedroom townhouse in South Belfast. There was beer in the fridge and Prosecco for the women. Once the eight adults entered the Jackson house the details of the night becomes the evidence in a rape trial.

By the Thursday of that week of celebrating, the lives of these five people were altered and connected forever. The woman, still a teenager, had been to the Brook, a sexual health clinic, and the Rowan, where she underwent a forensic medical examination.

She told her friends she had been raped by three “fucking Ulster Rugby scum”. She had taken the morning after pill and she was bleeding. The woman reported rape to the police and she had given an interview to the rape crime unit where she identified Patrick Jackson and Stuart Olding as the two men who had raped her, Blane McIIroy as the man that had exposed his genitals to her and Rory Harrison as the man who brought her home that night.

In the hours after the woman gave her interview, police officers went to Ravenhill to tell Ulster Rugby that Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were to come to the police station. They didn’t tell them why, but they said enough for the director of Ulster rugby to know that the situation was grave. Les Kiss would soon make a call to Paddy Jackson.

That Thursday in June, Rory Harrison’s birthday, was the first day of a different life for Jackson and his friends. The first day of what has been called a 20-month ‘blight’ on the life and rugby career of Patrick Jackson. Charged and accused of rape and sexual assault, Jackson told the jury of 11 reasonable members of society that he had not been able to go on tour with the Irish team to Chicago in 2017, where Ireland beat the All-Blacks.

The opportunity was not there for him because of a case founded in ‘poor evidence’ according to his defence barrister. Neither he nor Blane McIIroy were able to get visas for the States.

The allegations made about Blane McIIroy resulted in him not being able to finish his university degree. McIIroy said in his evidence that he is now working in a small packaging company in Belfast.

A year after the events of the night, Jackson did go with the Ireland team to Japan, where he played in two games against the host country, wore the number 10 jersey and scored 23 points across the two games for Ireland.

But while the academic aspect and careers of the men suffered, other dimensions of their lives continued on as normal.

In the months and weeks before the trial, Jackson and his friends were seen out, seemingly keeping pace with the same social scene.

In Belfast there is an elite crowd, a social bubble of wealth and prestige which Jackson and his friends belong to. Made up of those who went to fee-paying schools, the girls and guys from these schools socialise with each other. They go to the same clubs and bars in Belfast, hook up with guys from one school or girls from another.

Both the woman and the men in this rape trial belong to the crowd of private school affluence.

The overlap between the witnesses in the trial was indicative of that culture: two friends of the complainant were mutual friends with the girls who went back to the party in Jackson’s house. Another friend knew Jackson from school but wasn’t friends with him. Jackson and one of the girls at the after-party realised they were family friends once they were back in his home after Ollie’s.

What happened in the time between Monopollie Mondays and a pancake breakfast in Belfast has been the subject and material of a rape trial that has gripped the country and fuelled countless discussions amongst friends and family, which in this case come down to the binary and exclusive sentiments of: I Believe Her and I Believe Them.

In our system of justice however only a jury have the power to declare the accused guilty or not guilty. The jury in the Jackson trial, after sitting for 42 days of court hearings, returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. The jury did not believe that the prosecution had proven their case against the four men beyond reasonable doubt.

42 Days

“The lift is the only place you hear the truth in this building,” said the barrister. Asked if he was going down, he replied, yes, we all are.

His words were prophetic as what has been acknowledged by both sides is the tragedy of this case for all, there are no winners and justice has been done.

For two months, Courtroom 12 has played host to the most prominent rape trial in years, and at times what is supposed to be a criminal court of justice has veered into spectacle.

While the jury sat in silence, from the public gallery came heckling of the complainant, heckling of the police officers and laughter at barristers’ jokes. There was a moment of collective horror when someone began to clap following Blane McIIroy’s defence barrister’s closing speech.

Fleeting times where the passions and anguish of those watching the criminal justice system overcame personal respect for its etiquette.

And the etiquette is strict: all must rise for the judge as she enters and exits. There are no mobile phones in the gallery, barristers are in the garb of their profession – billowing robes and powdered wigs.

It was Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIIroy and Rory Harrison’s first time in court. This was said repeatedly by their barristers. They’d never been in trouble with the law before, never been convicted of a crime, but just as with anything in life, what was once alien becomes familiar. And in the last month of winter and first of spring, the four defendants developed a routine.

Every single morning outside the courthouse, photographers and cameramen waited. They knew Blane McIIory would come from the direction of House of Fraser where he sometimes stopped to get an espresso in Caffé Nero. They knew Rory Harrison would come that way too, walking separately from his parents, he never appeared in any photos with them. Jackson came from across the road and flanked by his family, he walked past the photographers with the protection of his parents. The men never arrived together.

Snap, snap snap, the photographers took their photos and went to upload them in the same Caffé Nero McIIroy got his morning coffee and where the legal teams went for lunch. The small town that the defendants called home was even smaller around Laganside Court, their faces appearing regularly on the front pages of every newspaper stocked in the Centra across the road. Belfast city; tight, clinging and claustrophobic.

Go down there and strike a pose, someone said to Jackson one day. Do those photographers not have enough photos of you yet?

Inside the courthouse, the men passed through the same metal detectors as everyone else and took the same stairs to the fourth floor to wait with the gathered crowd. But the corridor outside of the courtroom was their space. On grated metal chairs the four men often sat together in the mornings, chatting, sometimes laughing, on occasion their faces betrayed concern as to what was coming in court that day.

Under microscopic attention outside the courthouse, their photos on front-pages daily, their names in every news bulletin and inside the courtroom, where the jury can look to their dock for their reaction, the corridor became a liminal space for Jackson, Olding, McIIroy and Harrison. An exclusive space protected by the security of no photos, no intrusions, no questions and no allegations.

Their families huddled around them at times, well-wishers came, aunties and uncles popped in and out. Defence teams came out to the corridor to chat to their clients, the families wished each other luck depending on whose turn it was to be the focal point in court.

Always Jackson brought the biggest crowd – his brother, sister, sister-in-law, his parents, his best friend from childhood and, on the day he gave his evidence in court, a bundle of friends gathered to give him high-fives outside of the courtroom.

It was in the corridor that onlookers became apparent, those unconnected to complainant or defendant, but who came to exercise their civic right to observe justice and gossip in the canteen once the day was over.

“I’m getting t-shirts made,” says one. “‘Stuart Olding – March 2018 INNOCENT’. I don’t believe a word of it.”

Another made phone calls daily explaining to whoever was on the other line that she can’t talk, she is in a meeting. One day, a retired prison guard said he wanted to see the inside of a courtroom.

Every morning, Monday to Friday for nine weeks, the gathered crowd ditched their coffee cups, put their phones on silent and prepared to walk into a rape trial where three men, Jackson, Olding and Harrison, faced maximum life sentences.

The trial brought fans as well as family and one tall man in his twenties asked the Newstalk journalist, Frank Greaney, for a selfie. He politely refused.

Atmosphere built as the seconds inched closer to 10.30 when the doors were opened by security guards and everyone filed in. The queue was never orderly, it was a huddle and a push. Justice has an open-door policy.

The defendants’ families sat in the same seats each day – Jackson and Olding’s in the front row, McIlroy and Harrison’s behind. These seats were not specifically reserved but everyone knew they were taken.

The courtroom always filled quickly, those who came to watch were never late, they didn’t want to risk not procuring a seat. With space for 100 people, there were days when there was a queue out the door to get in.

In the public gallery the defendants sometimes stood at the back leaning against the wall, as if in a school yard and as girls walked in and out and they looked to see if they knew them.

By an unspoken signal, they handed their phones to their respective parents, and made their way to the dock. Patted down by security they sat in the same order each day: Jackson, then Olding, McIIroy, then Harrison on the edge.

In the dock, McIIroy usually poured water for his friends into plastic cups. There was camaraderie. Jackson and Olding often sat triceps touching, two best friends.

The trial was long and the men got haircuts. For Jackson and Olding, the suits and ties were forgotten for a few weeks in favour of crew-necks and open collars. A tattoo on Jackson’s back was visible one day, two dark lines down his shoulder blade. As the trial wore on, their bums got lower in the seats. Required to sit like stones for hours each day, their weariness showed. Day after day, all talk and speculation was extinguished from the court as the words “all rise” were shouted from the side of the courtroom and Judge Patricia Smyth walked in, colourful in robes of purple and red.

But before the jury entered and the trial could commence, there was still one person missing from the courtroom.

Every morning a phone rang over the loudspeakers. The phone connected, the ringing stopped and a line into the witness room was established. The complainant was now able to hear the court proceedings.

She was not present in the courtroom itself since the moment she finished giving her evidence, an epic eight-day marathon, but she was in the building every day, unseen, her presence announced by that ringing phone, a reminder to all – she was listening.

What once was foreign etiquette became routine over the 42 days and 41 nights of trial and evidence.

What this trial highlighted, in the wings and on the stage, was the incongruity of the accused and the complainant’s lives and language compared to the precision of the law. The casual nature of the defendants’ and the complainant’s messaging is familiar. It is breezy, it is not designed to hold up to scrutiny and forensic dissection by legal teams and this was an issue over and over again with witnesses and their evidence. Asking people in their twenties why they used a specific term in a WhatsApp message 20 months previous is a tough job, asking people that question in order to prove or defend a rape case seemed at times an almost futile task in courtroom 12.

The prosecution team hired a slang expert to define “spit roast”. One witness was asked to explain LOL and to decipher why exactly she chose that response in a 3am text to her friend. The meaning of “spenny” was puzzled over in court. Does it mean expensive? Does it mean spent or does it mean drunk?

The instantaneous nature of WhatsApp proved problematic for both defence and prosecution. How one conversation jumps to the next and the next – there is no easy cohesive line of correspondence from one person to another.

In the courtroom, the carefree and unconscious way people communicate with each other was exposed to be dangerous. When every word or phrase used is interpreted literally and in there, humour becomes a dangerous quality.

On the stand, Blane McIIroy had to explain his caption, “Love Belfast Sluts”, underneath a photo of himself and three women he never had sexual relations with.

He also had to explain why he agreed that they were “Brasses” meaning prostitutes, when they weren’t sex workers. Paddy Jackson was asked to explain repeatedly what he meant by “there was a lot of spit” in response to Stuart Olding’s message, “bit of spit roasting going on last night”.

And Rory Harrison’s message, “walked upstairs and there were more flutes than the 12th of July” had to be explained as an “attempt at humour”, as the message suggested that he had walked upstairs and seen multiple penises in Jackson’s upstairs room, something which he said was not correct in his evidence.

Lies build on lies, said McIlroy’s counsel, Arthur Harvey, to the court. And, in the public arena, rumour built on rumour. The photos that circulated in WhatsApp groups worldwide of a woman supposedly the complainant were false. The rumours about her father’s profession and her own history also false. The newly made Facebook profile in her name, also false.

Every line of the trial has been printed and quoted, soundbites of weasel, rape, fist, oral sex, silly girl, regret, alcohol, kissing, after-party, sex act, sobbing, vaginal wound.

They have been printed and passed around in conversations all over the country, nuggets of knowledge traded over drinks in pubs, around family tables and in taxis, wherever people gather, the case of the rugby rape trial arises.

Across Ireland polite discussions between family friends have developed into divisive arguments on the issues of consent, of entitlement, of class and of stereotypical ideas of victims and rapists. There is sympathy for both sides, disbelief and age-old ideas as to the consequences of alcohol, young people and improper sexual behaviour.

And the lines that tumble into every conversation? Guilty or not? Why would anyone put themselves through it? Why would anyone report sexual crimes if this is what happens?

Would there have been so much attention on this trial if the two defendants accused of rape hadn’t been Irish Rugby and Ulster Rugby players? Probably not.

The fact that defendants in Northern Ireland rape trials are not protected by a right to anonymity, as they are in the Republic, guaranteed a level of interest unmatched to anonymous, unidentifiable defendants in the South.

All these things shouldn’t matter any more. The case is over, there is no stain on their reputations according to a jury of their peers.

And just as it began with the four men standing up to hear the charges against them, it ended as the four men stood to face the judge and hear their fates decided by the 11 jurors. Not Guilty rang out six times in the courtroom, the verdict reverberating across Ireland, in pings and sharp pangs, as people reacted to the news.

An ordinary Monday in June had been dissected over 42 days in court and four men were free, but none of the people involved will ever be released from the events of that summer’s night.