Northern Ireland news

Paddy Jackson had the unwavering support of his parents

Paddy Jackson and family members  
Lesley-Anne McKeown, Press Association

It is just over 10 years since Paddy Jackson experienced his first taste of triumph.

As a schoolboy he was hailed for heroic efforts in winning the coveted Ulster School's Cup on March 17, 2008.

Since then, there have been many moments to savour - not least stepping out in green for the first time as the Irish national anthem echoed around Edinburgh's Murrayfield Stadium in 2013.

But the baby-faced fly half, one of rugby's most promising rising stars, is not likely to have experienced any greater high than the moment he walked from Belfast Crown Court, a free man.

Flanked by family and friends who supported him every day of the nine-week trial, Jackson strode with a renewed sense of pride, as if he had just kicked a Rugby World Cup winner.

Pundits have previously praised his determination, self preservation and ability to bounce back - qualities that were tested during those long, arduous days in the dock and which will sustain him as he attempts to re-build his stalled career. And life.

Born David Patrick Lindsay James Jackson in Lisburn, Co Antrim on January 5, 1992, he marked his 26th birthday just weeks before the case opened.

He has a younger sister and an older brother who at the time of the alleged rape in June 2016 was sharing Jackson's Oakleigh Park home with his partner and infant daughter. The baby was not in the house on the night in question.

 Paddy Jackson speaks to the media after being acquitted. Picture by Hugh Russell

His family lived in Birmingham for a time but returned to Belfast while Paddy was still of primary school age.

He played mini rugby for Belfast Harlequins, a club based in the affluent Malone Road area in the south of the city from the age of eight or nine.

 Paddy Jackson and family leaving court after not guilty verdict. Picture by Hugh Russell. 

But it was at the prestigious Methodist College (Methody) where Jackson's talent for rugby was really nurtured.

And after that stellar Schools Cup performance when he helped Methody trounce their opponents 36-nil, he was invited to join the rugby elite.

Having left school at the age of 18 with three A-level grades B, C and D he had plenty of choices but followed his passion and took a place at the Ulster Academy.

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Recognised as an impressive and quick-thinking player, Jackson made his senior debut for Ulster in 2011, while still a teenager.

A year later, aged just 20 and with only a handful of games under his belt, he found himself centre stage at the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham. Although it was not his finest hour, Jackson undoubtedly made a name for himself among the game's greats.

He now has 25 Ireland caps.

Off the pitch Paddy Jackson is also hugely popular.

He has more than 40,000 followers on Twitter and a further 57,000 people follow his posts on Instagram.

A cursory scroll through his social media highlights the lifestyle he has enjoyed - promoting fancy cars, designer clothes and even, free food.

On the night of the alleged rape, June 28, 2016, he had been partying in the VIP section of Ollie's - a nightclub in the basement of Belfast's five-star Merchant Hotel.

Also present in the exclusive members' lounge were Northern Ireland footballers, fresh from their success at the European Championships.

And as a huge football fan - he has told sports interviewers he would have wanted to play football for Liverpool or Northern Ireland if he wasn't a rugby professional - Jackson was in his element socialising with other local sporting heroes.

He had been one of the "happiest" men in Belfast at the time and CCTV footage shows he was comfortable posing for pictures and speaking to those who approached him on his night out.

Jackson, whose tight red curls make him look younger than his 26 years, has also traded on his squeaky clean image - fronting charity campaigns for Mencap and Action Cancer.

Paddy Jackson speaking outside court after being acquitted. Picture by Niall Carson, PA 

Yet, as the joker in the pack he has found himself in hot water including when "blacked up" images of him wearing a "slave costume" were posted to his Twitter account.

His hobbies include reading Harry Potter and watching the hit fantasy television show Game Of Thrones.

He also enjoys sketching and drawing, particularly his dog and superheroes such as Spider-Man and Batman as well as miming to rap songs, something he described as a "silly" pastime but earned him more than a million hits on Youtube.

The court heard that Jackson cites some of rugby's biggest names including Ireland captain Rory Best as close personal friends.

He even baby-sat Best's children and was invited to his son's sixth birthday party.

Ulster and Ireland winger Craig Gilroy and British Lions star Iain Henderson are also among his pals.

Co-accused Stuart Olding was described as a "very close friend" having clicked with him when they met at the Ulster Academy.

He went to school with Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison, who also faced charges connected with the alleged rape, and has known them since the age of 11.

Witnesses, including his brother's partner Eimer Murray and another doctor friend Katie Donaldson gave evidence on his behalf saying he was polite, passive and a gentleman.

Throughout the trial Jackson has enjoyed the unwavering support of his parents.

Twice a day they walked him through the bank of photographers posted outside Belfast's Laganside Courthouse and sat in the front row of the packed public gallery listening to hours of graphic evidence.

So, whatever the future holds Jackson knows he can depend on those who matter the most - those family and friends who stood with him through the worst of times as they did on that glorious St Patrick's Day in 2008.

Speaking outside Belfast Crown Court after today's verdict, Paddy Jackson said: "I'd just like to thank the judge and the jury for giving me a fair trial, my parents for being here every day, as well as my brother and sisters."

Jackson also thanked his barristers and solicitors.

"Out of respect for my employers I've nothing further to comment," he said.

(l-r) Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison pictured arriving at Belfast Crown Court this morning. Photos: Hugh Russell 

 Paddy Jackson is an Ireland international

 Paddy Jackson and family outside court. Picture by Hugh Russell. 

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