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Rugby rape trial: Several hundred people gather for rally in Belfast calling for reform of how legal system deals with sex offence cases

Demonstrators called for a reform of the way the criminal justice system deals with sex offence cases. Picture by Hugh Russell

SEVERAL hundred people gathered in protest outside the Laganside Courts complex in Belfast yesterday over the handling of the high profile rape trial of Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.

The demonstration, organised by the Belfast Feminist Network, took place yesterday lunchtime to demand reform of the criminal justice system in dealing with sex offence cases.

It followed the not-guilty verdicts delivered to Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and two other men following a nine-week trial.

Many of those attending held up yellow flowers - some of which were tied to the gates of the courthouse - while others brought signs with slogans such as '#IbelieveHer' and 'Overhaul the justice system'.

Green Party deputy leader Clare Bailey, an MLA for South Belfast, addressed the assembled crowd, while representatives of other political parties, including People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll and Alliance councillor Emmet McDonough-Brown.

To applause and cheers from the crowd, Kelly O'Dowd from the Belfast Feminist Network read out a number of points the group wants to see addressed.

"Our criminal justice system is not fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with sexual crimes," she said.

"Victims are re-traumatised and are treated like they are on trial.....the rampant culture of victim blaming and shaming needs addressed.

"The media reporting of rape trials is intrusive...it serves to increase the distress of victims and survivors of sexual abuse and rape.

"Cases should not be reported on until after the jury has given its verdict," she said.

Ms O'Dowd said the group is also calling for "a compulsory comprehensive relationship and sexuality education programme in all schools which includes consent and toxic masculinity".

Ms Bailey said that there was anger at the judicial system.

"Here in Northern Ireland, in 2018, we still have no specific laws on domestic violence," said the Green Party MLA.

"Before the Assembly was collapsed the first piece of legislation on coercive control and another on stalking was being drafted. If the assembly was up and running we would be witnessing these laws passing now. But we remain unprotected.

"PSNI figures from last year show the highest number of reported domestic violence incidences since records began," added Ms Bailey.

The South Belfast MLA also added her voice to calls for an "agreed curriculum" for sex education in schools.

"We do not have a compulsory or even an agreed curriculum for relationship and sexuality education in our schools and absolutely no plans to introduce it. To create the cultural shift we need – we need to educate and inform our children.

"This is nothing to do with class, it is everything to do with gender. Misogyny is alive and well in Northern Ireland today."

Before dispersing, protesters held up their flowers and banners and chanted 'I believe her'.

Meanwhile, the DUP North Antrim MP Ian Paisley has described some of the commentary in the case of the rugby players as "trial by lynch mob" and said the processes currently in place have "fundamental flaws".

"I am saying that careful consideration must now be given to anonymity...(including) for those accused until a verdict is published," he told the BBC.

"What has happened over the last nine weeks...hasn't helped anyone."

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