Opinions which were poles apart were voiced on the streets outside the Kingspan stadium last night, as feminist demonstrators rallied just a stone’s throw from the gates of the rugby ground.
The protest, which coincided with the Ulster VS Ospreys game and which had been planned for weeks, centred largely on the behaviour of the men acquitted in the recent Belfast rape trial – the highest-profile of whom were Ireland and Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.
Whilst protestors wanted the men barred from playing, some fans the News Letter spoke to voice the view that the trial was over and that they should be allowed back.
All defendants in the trial were unanimously acquitted of all charges they faced.
The female-dominated demonstration, numbering about 250 or so at its height and complete with a samba band, was told via loudspeaker by Kellie Turtle of Belfast Feminist Network that what is needed is “compulsory comprehensive relationship and sexuality education programmes in schools, that include consent and toxic masculinity”. She also called for the “re-educating” of Ulster rugby players.
She also said “our criminal justice system is not fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with sexual crimes”, and the press’ reporting of rape trials is “intrusive, salacious, and often undermines the victims’ testimony”.
Much of the focus of the anger was on the messages which emerged during the trial.
A series of extremely sexually explicit communications had been shared via WhatsApp between the players and their friends.
In one, for example, a friend asked Mr Olding if “any sluts [got] f**ked”, and in another Mr Jackson said that there was “a lot of spit roast last night”.
Clare Bailey, South Belfast Green MLA, was also present and told the News Letter “the women of Ulster and Ireland have had their ‘Me Too’ moment”.
She insisted Ulster Rugby should move quickly to determine the fate of the three players whose sporting futures are uncertain – Mr Jackson, Mr Olding, and Craig Gilroy (who was not charged with any offence, but admitted referring to women as “sluts” in a message). All men have voiced regret over their behaviour.
One of those attending the protest was Pauline Dempsey, a 66-year-old retired accounts manager, originally from Dublin now living in south Belfast.
An Ireland rugby fan, she said she was not involved in any campaign groups but had come along to register her “absolute disgust” at the “deplorable behaviour” which had surfaced during the trial.
“If my son was involved in anything like this, I don’t know how I could hold my head up,” she said. “Their mothers must be so ashamed of them.”
The fact the exchanges were supposed to be private among the men themselves “doesn’t justify it”.
One woman, who would not give her name, said she was a local resident who occasionally attended matches and whose children sometimes sold buns outside to raise money for charity.
Walking her dog past the protestors, she said Ulster Rugby should “stand for family values” and “against misogyny”, and that it must take action against the players.
The protest took place on a grass verge opposite the main gates, and the News Letter spoke to a number of fans entering the ground as the rally was under way.
Many did not want to give their names; for example, one man initially gave his name, then changed his mind and asked that it not be used.
“I don’t need this lot after me,” he said, pointing at the protestors across the road.
One said: “It’s disgraceful. They’re innocent.”
Another said: “They’ve been found not guilty. How long are these guys going to be persecuted for?”
One man, also speaking anonymously before rushing off for hte gate, indicated that he had no problem with the protest so long as it stayed “peaceful”.
Peter Wright, 33 and from Lisburn, arriving to watch the match with his eight-year-old son, was prepared to speak out.
He told the News Letter: “Young fellas are going to use inappropriate language. If it’s a question of them continuing playing for the team and not having a job, I think that’s a ridiculous over-reaction for inappropriate language.”
Gareth Ferguson, a 46-year-old east Belfast accountant, attending the match with his daughter, said of the protestors: “What gives them the right to be judge, jury and executioner?
“[Those] guys were up in court. Let them live their lives. It’s a disgrace.”
East Belfast resident Karen Fitzsimmons, wearing a pink Ulster Rugby hat, was likewise prepared to speak up publicly.
“I’ve had friends who played women’s rugby, and I played hockey for a long time,” she told the News Letter.
“I’d challenge a lot of female rugby players to have their WhatsApp put out in courts and in the public realm and not be embarrassed about some of their communications – which are just as ribald as some of the other guys.
“I certainly have seen a lot worse on WhatsApp and it doesn’t mean that somebody loses their rugby career.”
Asked if the view was shared more widely, particularly among female fans, she said: “Unfortunately no. I think the feminist bandwagon has got some serious acceleration.”