An unlikely source took a stance on respect for women: professional rugby. Two Northern Ireland players had their contracts revoked following their widely publicized rape prosecution.
Both players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, were acquitted of rape of a woman in 2016 when she was 19, but the trial revealed several players’ text messages bragging about what they considered sexual conquests, while referring to the woman in degrading, nauseating terms. On Saturday, the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) and Ulster Rugby let the players go for failure to uphold “core values of the game,” including respect and integrity.
But in the Belfast courtroom, the woman herself seemed to be on trial. She was subjected to eight days of cross-examination by four lawyers. They critiqued everything from her grammar to the fact she didn’t scream for help. She reportedly had to withstand jurors inspecting her underwear. And though a curtain shielded her from the accused, inside was a video camera broadcasting her face to the courtroom, which was open to the public. One reporter called it “rape trial tourism” as visitors came for the spectacle. Is it any wonder the victim’s identity – sexual assault victims are guaranteed anonymity in the media – was revealed on social media?
For my work with Human Rights Watch, I document rape and other horrific rights abuses daily. Yet the Belfast rape trial brought me to tears, repeatedly.
Protests in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic in the trial’s wake underscore the public’s concern about sexual violence and treatment of its victims. Leaders in Northern Ireland have promised to review and reform legal protections in sexual assault cases. But political deadlock stands in the way of forming a government and any legislative action.
When Northern Ireland has a government, it should prioritize these reforms, in line with international guidance. This includes closing the courtroom to the public and minimizing how often victims must recount their experiences. It should also grant sexual assault victims the right to legal representation.
Other professional sports organizations should follow the rugby teams’ lead and not excuse sexist, degrading conduct. But without legal reform, rape victims in Northern Ireland are likely to think even harder before they dare come forward to seek justice.