A rape trial sparked outrage. A year later, Ireland grapples with reform.

Why We Wrote This

Ireland’s #MeToo moment – a highly-publicized and criticized trial of two rugby players accused of rape last year – may be fueling change. The island is working to improve the way it handles rape and sexual abuse trials.

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Belfast Feminist Network activists hold a protest outside the Kingspan Stadium in east Belfast, Northern Ireland, on April 13, 2018, to pressure Ulster Rugby and the Irish Rugby Football Union for action against what they call a misogynistic culture within rugby.

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Northern Ireland’s #MeToo moment came last year, during the March trial of two rugby players charged with raping a woman. The trial illustrated why survivors are often hesitant to report rape and sexual assault, said advocates: The accuser endured hostile cross-examination; lawyers questioned why she didn’t scream, suggested she had pursued one of the men, and passed her bloody underwear around the courtroom. The jury deliberated for less than four hours before acquitting all defendants. The response echoed across the island: “I believe her.”

Now, Ireland and Northern Ireland are taking steps toward reforming the way sexual violence cases are investigated and tried. In May, an independent review recommended changes to make the process less onerous for victims, including ending public access to such trials, allowing cross-examination before trial and playing a recording of it during proceedings, and educating juries to combat rape myths.  

Changes like this would help rebalance the system, says Noeline Blackwell, head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. “The structure dealing with victims of intimate violence should be different to the structure dealing with other types of crime which do not impact in the same traumatic way on victims.”

One year after Ireland’s own #MeToo movement, Ireland and Northern Ireland are both taking steps toward reforming the way sexual violence cases are investigated and tried. 

The changes were largely prompted by public outcry across the island after two famous rugby players were acquitted of rape after a highly public trial in Belfast last year. After the verdict, thousands of people took to the streets on both sides of the border, decrying judicial systems they say are weighted against survivors of sexual violence. Now those concerns are being considered in the halls of government. In May, the final report of an independent review of how the criminal justice system deals with sexual offenses recommended changes to make the process less onerous for victims in Northern Ireland. And a similar review is underway in the Republic of Ireland.

Advocates say change is urgently needed to ensure judicial systems can deliver justice for victims of rape and sexual assault, and avoid further harming them.

Rape is the only crime “where victims always seem to have to defend themselves,” says Shaneda Daly, a survivor who started a support network for others. Many victims are reluctant to go to police and face a trial because of the way they are often treated and the hurdles they face, she says – the long delays that draw out a difficult process; the possibility of being retraumatized in investigations or court, where police, lawyers, and judges sometimes buy into myths about rape; the inconsistency in sentencing. “These things keep survivors from coming forward. One hundred percent find it retraumatizing,” says Ms. Daly.

Northern Ireland’s #MeToo moment 

In Belfast, the outcry began last year, after the trial in March of two Ulster and Ireland rugby players charged with raping a woman, and two other men charged with lesser offenses. The proceedings were open to the public, and because of the players’ celebrity status, the gallery was packed with media and members of the public.

On display were many of the issues advocates say keep survivors from reporting rape and sexual assault to authorities: The accuser was on the witness stand for eight days and endured hostile cross-examination from each defendant’s lawyer. They asked her why she didn’t scream, and suggested she had pursued one of the men she said raped her. They grilled her over minor inconsistencies in the account she gave soon after the alleged assault, and passed her bloody underwear around the courtroom. Though she was supposed to remain anonymous, her name was shared on social media.

The jury deliberated for less than four hours before acquitting all four defendants. The crowds who gathered in Belfast, Dublin, and elsewhere across the island used the rallying cry “I believe her.”

The following month, as public debate over the trial raged, retired judge Sir John Gillen was commissioned to lead a review into how Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system deals with cases of sexual violence. The final report, delivered in May, lays out 253 recommendations for changes, including ending public access to such trials; allowing, in some cases, cross-examination to take place before the trial and playing a recording of it during the proceedings; offering legal representation to victims before trial; educating juries to combat rape myths; preventing improper cross-examination of the victim’s previous sexual history; and taking “radical steps to combat excessive delay in the criminal justice system.”

In interviews with the press, Mr. Gillen has said 75% of the changes do not require legislation, and many could be implemented within “weeks and months.”

Combatting misconceptions

Ireland has a separate judicial system than Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Belfast trial sparked demands for a reckoning here, as well. The outcry was renewed in November after a rape trial in Cork, in southern Ireland, in which the defendant’s lawyer asked the jury to consider the type of underwear the victim was wearing while arguing that the defendant was not guilty. He was acquitted. More protests erupted, and Irish legislator Ruth Coppinger held up lacy underwear in the assembly to decry “routine victim-blaming.”

Niall Carson/PA/AP
Protesters gather in Dublin on November 14, 2018, to support victims of sexual violence. After one lawyer linked a victim’s underwear with consent in a rape trial last year, protesters have begun displaying underwear to decry victim-blaming.

In August, the minister of justice appointed law professor Tom O’Malley to conduct a review of the way sexual violence cases are handled in the Irish Republic. The report is not yet released, but it will consider the issues of extra training on sexual violence for the police and the judiciary, additional support to victims during the process, prerecorded victim testimony, and public attendance at trials. 

The Cork trial illustrates how common societal misconceptions about rape can also be held by lawyers, police, judges, and juries, says Noeline Blackwell, head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. 

“Inevitably, our lawyers and judges are just more of the people in our society. And as a result of that, they too come with the myths, with the lack of understanding, and particularly the lack of understanding of the impact of trauma,” she says. “So the fact that in a sense these cases are just treated in exactly the same way as any other criminal trial means we are missing something important, and that is the impact of the case on the victim of the crime.”

Reconsidering rape and abuse trials 

Ms. Daly, the survivor whose father pleaded guilty to 227 counts of rape and sexual assault after she reported him to police, started a group called Survivors Side by Side, for survivors of sexual violence to support each other. She says trials like those in Belfast and Cork make clear why many survivors don’t come forward.

“There’s so much that the courts just don’t understand,” says Ms. Daly, criticizing the way judges and lawyers sometimes buy into rape myths, like questioning if an attack was really rape if the victim did not scream. “Your mind is never going to forget about it, it’s never going to recover. You can move forward, but that trauma is there for the rest of your life,” she says. 

“In murder trials they bring in experts, in rape and abuse trials they should bring experts in as well, and they shouldn’t be allowed to say, ‘Well why didn’t you shout out, why didn’t you scream.’ There should be an expert to explain why she didn’t.” 

Changes like this would help rebalance the system, which now favors the rights of the accused over the rights of the victim, adds Ms. Blackwell.

“I’m not saying a victim should be able to say something without the accused having full right to a fair trial, fair hearing, because that’s really important,” she says. “But at the same time, the structure dealing with victims of intimate violence should be different to the structure dealing with other types of crime which do not impact in the same traumatic way on victims.”

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