ALISON O'CONNOR: Sympathy? Redemption? What now for Jackson and Olding?

Should these two men, found not guilty by a jury, be consigned to the fringes of society, unable to get work for the rest of their lives asks Alison O’Connor

Sympathy for Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding? Now there’s a novel thought. However, it was one which was put in my head last weekend as I listened to a speech at the Burren Law School, held over the bank holiday weekend.

The notion was first floated at a session on Saturday afternoon during a questions-and-answers session when well-known journalist and commentator Eamonn Mallie raised the issue of how the public appears to have refused to accept the verdict in the trial; and how, despite that verdict, rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding cannot now get jobs.

The next day, when addressing the Burren Law School himself (on the same panel as myself as it happens) Mallie broached the subject again. He painted a picture of the small community where he lives in Belfast where he meets Jackson and Olding almost every day in a local coffee shop. Of how “that case has ripped our society apart”.

This affluent area of Belfast is home to members of the legal, media, and medical professions, as well as professional sport stars.

“Husbands and wives will not discuss the issue now — husbands who play rugby, wives who are on the side of the girl, and wives who will always be on the side of the girls. You’ve got Ulster Rugby, some of them think the guys should be back playing.”

Mallie stressed that he was appalled at what had gone on and the manner in which women were spoken about in the text messages. But he was now concentrating on the aftermath and the fact that due process has taken its course. He had spoken to some women the day before at the Burren Law School, who were adamant that the young men were now beyond redemption.

“My family — as a family — we have got past the vulgarity of everything that emerged in that court, the vulgarity, the exchanges among those guys. We feel as citizens we too have a duty to those guys.

“I met Jackson the other day sitting alone with his dog. I drove away because I was in a hurry. I spoke to his dog and I spoke to him and I drove off and when I drove off I wondered was that his only friend in that moment in time, that dog.”

He went on: “The River Lagan was just across the way from me and I have three grown-up children and I have five grandchildren and I was just wondering what are the pressures on that young man. Now perceptibly out there he wronged — the public opinion is against him and think he should be punished. But I think there is a duty of care and that is why we have to be very very careful in ostracising these guys.

“Now, no one could tolerate, if what we have heard in the courts, nobody could tolerate that — that violation or alleged violation, that perceived violation of women — I accept that entirely — but there is another side of this, these are young guys, they wronged, I think they are entitled to some chance to redeem themselves.”

He added that his own son went to the same school as Paddy Jackson, Methodist College in Belfast, and played rugby very successfully.

“Even as far back as 2002 we spotted that sense of entitlement of young men in that privileged environment. It is a rather privileged environment for those kids in grammar schools… and they have a sense of entitlement and it is partly that which has given rise to this particular case in Northern Ireland.”

In further discussion afterwards he explained that he believes society has a duty of care to all humans, including these two young men, but that there is an onus on them now to earn the respect they have forfeited, especially among women who feel seriously hurt and offended.

“These young men need to wear sackcloth and ashes, possibly by taking themselves off for six months or a year to work in refugee camps or to impoverished countries to work with the poor.”

I’m not so sure about the refugee camps idea myself, but Mallie raises an interesting question. Should these two men, both in their 20s, found not guilty by a jury, be consigned to the fringes of society, unable to get work, for the rest of their lives?

If what they need to do is show they are sorry how should they do that? What would be deemed enough? Would it require winning the hearts and minds of social media before they can be deemed rehabilitated?

This idea of reputation recovery has been on my mind of late given the manner in which we can all now so publicly and vocally express our views on social media, and how a mob mentality can take hold. That’s not to say that it’s the wrong view just because everyone has it, and in the case of the Belfast trial there was so much that disturbed, distressed and appalled women, but sometimes it leaves no room for any dissent.

Needless to say anyway the thoughts of most people rest not with those young men, but with the young woman and what she endured that night and during her days in the witness box during the trial, and since then.

Eamonn Mallie’s original question on the refusal of the public to accept the verdict, raised at the Saturday session, had been put to Shane Kilcommins, professor of law at the University of Limerick.

Prof Kilcommins also had concerns on how the jury’s verdict had been greeted and the response on social media with the hashtag #IBelieverHer.

THERE is of course a need to accommodate victims, Prof Kilcommins said, but this was not a “zero-sum game”.

Chatting afterwards, the head of the School of Law at the University of Limerick explained that of course he too was appalled by what went on and the depiction of women, but the point he was making was about the justice system and the need to accept a verdict given by a jury which has heard all the evidence .

In his presentation, he had said that, for 150 years, the pain and experience of the victim had not been incorporated into the justice system. Now that is beginning to happen and it is a very positive thing, to be welcomed.

Activism serves an important purpose in raising awareness of the issues raised by complainants in the criminal process. But he questioned the value of replacing the old approach with a “morality of grief”. The law, he said, is the final arbiter and change has to come from within.

Interesting questions all round. None easily answered. But they are worth thinking about.

Should these two men, found not guilty by a jury, be consigned to the fringes of society, unable to get work for the rest of their lives?

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