Hundreds of protesters are preparing to gather at the home of Ulster Rugby as organisers of the demonstration say they want to “stamp out” misogyny and sexism in sport amid the controversy over two Irish internationals cleared of rape.
In the run-up to Ulster’s clash with Welsh side Osprey at the Kingspan stadium in Belfast on Friday night, the group coordinating the protests say they want rugby and other sporting bodies to address what they claim are prevailing misogynistic attitudes.
The demonstration is part of a wider movement – appearing online under #IBelieveHer – that has sprung up across Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after the acquittal of the Ireland rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding for rape last month.
One of their friends, Blane McIlroy, was found not guilty of indecent exposure; another, Rory Harrison, was cleared of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
A 21-year-old woman alleged she had been raped and sexually assaulted at a party at Jackson’s house in Belfast in June 2016. During the trial, the court was shown messages the defendants sent to each other describing the woman as having been “hysterical” and “there was a bit of spit roasting going on last night”.
Twenty-four hours after the men were all found not guilty last month, up to 1,000 people demonstrated outside Belfast’s Laganside courts criticising the trial but also demanding that Jackson and Olding no longer play for province or country.
Liz Nelson from the Belfast Feminist Network, which is organising the latest protest outside Ulster’s ground, said: “This rally is not about the verdict or even what happens to these players. It is about getting sporting organisations like Ulster Rugby to be accountable and to act on the issues of sexism and misogyny. What this trial highlighted was the extent of sexist and misogynistic attitudes in sport including rugby.
“When we are at the stadium tonight in large numbers I hope there are respectful conversations with the Ulster fans. And I hope that sporting bodies like Ulster Rugby will take on board what needs to be done now to counteract misogyny and sexism. This is a positive protest aimed at changing attitudes.”
Reporting restrictions on the case were lifted this week. It can now be revealed that Harrison sent a pornographic video to Olding’s mobile phone the morning after the party at Jackson’s house showing three unknown people – two men and a woman – engaged in a sex act. The trial judge, Patricia Smyth, had ruled this evidence could not be heard by the 11-member jury.
The latest revelation has compounded the anger of many Irish women over the attitudes of the players and their friends.
Nelson said the issues raised by the case had to result in a “stamping out of misogyny” in sport. “There has to be greater education over what sexual consent means and that is not just for Ulster Rugby and other sports but also in the schools here. This is about changing attitudes in general society towards women,” she added.
Arguments over whether Jackson and Olding can resume their top-level rugby careers have been played out in two full-page advertisements in the Belfast Telegraph. The newspaper is a sponsor for the Ulster team.
Jackson and Olding’s supporters paid £2,000 this week for an ad in which they demanded that “these innocent men are reinstated and rightly allowed to resume their roles for both club and country”.
The advertisement was in response to a previous ad last week organised by a rugby fan, Anna Nolan. In a direct appeal to Irish and Ulster rugby’s high command, her ad said the players’ behaviour “falls far beneath the standards that your organisations represent and as such we demand that neither of these men represents Ulster or Ireland now or at any point in the future”.
Ulster fan Mark Neale, a season ticketholder for 20 years, said the trial verdict “has to be respected” and that Jackson and Olding deserved a “fair and proportionate” hearing to establish whether they should be reinstated.
While defending the Belfast Feminist Network’s right to protest outside the ground, Neale said it was “misguided” and could get in the way of a fair hearing for the two players as Ulster and the Irish Rugby Football Union consider their future.
One of Ulster’s main sponsors, the Bank of Ireland, confirmed this week it expressed concerns to the club’s chief executive “regarding the serious behaviour and conduct issues” that emerged during the high-profile trial.
One of the byproducts of the trial has been a recognition for the need to re-establish rape counselling services, particularly in Northern Ireland. It is seven years since the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre closed, which had counselled victims of sexual violence for more than three decades.
Tina Calder, whose mother Eileen co-founded the centre, said a new organisation had been set up after the trial. The Rape Crisis Action Group said it had been offered support by 16 volunteers, some with several years’ experience helping victims of sexual violence.
“During the trial it became clear that we needed to resurrect the old Rape Crisis Centre and its services,” Calder said.
“We hope to train a new generation of counsellors over the coming six to nine months and set up our telephone helpline service before expanding to a full range of services.
“Something practical is being created over the outrage and anger that came out of this case.”