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  • Niamh

#IBelieveHer is More Than Just a Hashtag

It’s more than just a top trending hashtag on social media. It’s more than some PC bandwagon or wave of populism to jump on. It’s more than a news story. It’s more than food for keyboard warriors and trolls to feast on. Scrape back the words of this trending hashtag and beneath it you’ll see something pulsating and angry at the very heart of our society.

Boys will be boys, sure?

She was a silly little girl.

She was drunk

She was flirty

She didn’t say no.

She lied.

Yesterday Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy, and Rory Harrison were acquitted of all charges in the Belfast Rape Trial after 9 weeks and just 3hrs and 45minutes deliberation by the jury.

In the eyes of the law these men are not guilty. The verdict has to be respected, as it simply cannot be changed. There are no appeals, no second chances. No re-runs. No opportunity for anyone to put their case across once more with feeling. For the young woman at the centre of this case, it’s all over. The verdict will stand. But that doesn’t mean I cannot disagree with it.

Is not-guilty the same as innocent?

Shes lying?

They are lying?

So what's the truth? Ultimately, the only people who know the truth are the 4 men and the woman. I wasn't in the room, I wasn't in the house. I suspect the truth lies in the hazy recollection of each.

What I do know, is that the system let her down in so many ways. Her identity was supposed to be protected, but in a world where social media is king, will she ever stay that way? The PSNI are to investigate those who allegedly revealed her identity online. Even if they are, will she ever be able to move on? Will any of them? Because this case has repercussions for all involved.

For me, the case, the verdict and the aftermath on social media has highlighted a profoundly skewed attitude toward sexual violence in this country. It’s revealed a deep seated set of misogynist values that still exist here. We might like to think we’ve come a long way from the dark days of the Magdalen Laundries when ‘fallen women’ were packed off out of sight and out of mind to be punished for their 'sins', but have we? While the likes of the Me Too and Times Up movement are sweeping around the world, with women standing up to sexual violence and saying enough is enough, we can still see a verdict like this happen right before our eyes.

In my estimation, consent was at the heart of this trial. It’s not a grey area. Assuming consent is not consent. Saying a person was ‘doing it, so they must have been fine with it’, is not consent. Commenting on the case in today’s Irish Examiner the Dublin Rape Crises Centre said;

“The case highlighted what is rape: sex without consent. It also highlighted the need for all those engaged in sexual activity to ensure that their partner is consenting... submission is not consent. A person does not have to yell or call out for help. A person may be frozen. All of these are normal and real responses. They are not consent. Consent involves active agreement. Anything less is unacceptable.”

If nothing else, the case painfully highlights that we’ve got to have a conversation with our kids about consent.

Over the 9 weeks of the trial, I’ve been taken aback by the very real undercurrent of what writer Louise O’Neill perfectly referred to as toxic masculinity. Did this woman ever really have a chance when we still live in a society where young men ‘throw’ a young woman home, bleeding and distressed and then refer to themselves as ‘legends,’ and ‘top shaggers,’ who ‘spit roast’ a young woman, calling her a ‘Belfast slut,’ and ‘brasser?

What are we letting our young men turn into? Men who have zero respect for women who are seen as mere objects for their own gratification?

Come on it’s just banter!

It’s locker room talk!

Boys will be boys, right?

Silly little girl.

The verdict may be unchangeable, but I hope the case might lead to bigger changes in society and changes in how rape cases are dealt with. The woman in question was cross examined on the stand for 6 days. Her clothing was passed around the court. Her body was discussed as if it was an inanimate object. She was accused of being ‘attracted to celebrities,’ of touching the arms of men in CCTV footage, as if that somehow meant she was fair game?

What did she expect?

Silly little girl.

Got herself into trouble.

In the republic of Ireland, the case would have been handled differently. It would have been a closed court and all parties would have had the right to anonymity. I agree all parties should have those rights. But despite all of that, we’ve still got very poor rates of reporting of sexual violence and rape in this country and even worse conviction rates. And after yesterday’s outcome, would you really blame someone for not coming forward in future?

There has got to be change.

I doubt the young woman in question will ever get to read this, but if she does I want her to know I stand with her and so do hundreds of others.

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