Protests across Ireland following high profile Belfast rape trial

Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast (Wikimedia commons)

The outcome of a high profile rape law court trial in Belfast, which saw four defendants, including Ulster and Ireland rugby football players, Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, found ‘not guilty’ on charges of rape and sexual assault, saw an explosion of spontaneous demonstrations in every major city in Ireland. 

It brought to the surface opposition to the culture of sexism and victim-blaming in the legal system and in society. It comes against the backdrop of the historic referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Constitution of the Irish Republic and the emergence of a new feminist movement globally.

“This working class woman would’ve kicked their ass”, “Even I know no means no” [a placard placed on a dog] and “I’d rather be sued than raped.” These were just some of the homemade placards that have appeared on demonstrations in cities across Ireland, North and South, in the wake of the high-profile rape trial.

On 29 March, 4,000 protested in Dublin, the day after the verdict, and an incredible 8,000 marched on the following Saturday in a protest and rally facilitated by Socialist Party member, Ruth Coppinger TD (member of the Irish parliament). In Belfast, up to 1,000 demonstrated outside the courts where the trial took place on the Thursday, organised by the feminist movement. Another 500 attended a further demonstration on Saturday organised by ROSA. Protests also took place in Derry, Kilkenny, Galway, Cork and elsewhere.

These protests were young, mostly female and extremely angry. Reflecting the youthful nature of this new movement, hashtag after hashtag relating to the trial have been trending on social media, including #IBelieveHer and #StandWithHer. When the solicitor of Paddy Jackson, one of the defendants, threatened to sue people for defamation regarding comments made about Jackson #SueMePaddy trended on social media.

Conviction rates

The trial has brought to the fore the prevalence of sexist and misogynistic attitudes that exist in the legal system and society in general. In Northern Ireland, over 94% of all rape trials have resulted in no conviction for the accused. The conviction rates for sexual violence are far lower than for any other crime.  In the South only 19% result in convictions and 7% when the case is contested. As Suzanne Breen, one of the few journalists who have covered this trial in a fair manner puts it: “This was a case where it wasn’t always clear who exactly was on trial. Each defendant is rightly allowed their own legal representation. But a 21-year-old woman being cross-examined by four defence barristers over eight days pulls at your heart-strings… The young woman failed to secure the verdict she desired. She did not win, yet she has certainly not lost.”

It was a trial that exposed how what women wear, where women go, who women look at, can be taken as evidence for consent in the face of the expressed statement that consent was not granted. The trial took the form of a prolonged and misogynistic character assassination of the complainant.
The coverage in the aftermath of the trial, of the defendants’ disgusting comments in a WhatsApp group has also infuriated people. In the group they describe themselves as “legends” and “top shaggers” while the victim, who had left the house bleeding and traumatised, is described as a “Belfast slut.” For many women this can unfortunately be their daily experience in interacting with some men.  

The defence team commented on the rugby players’ “upbringing” and referred to the “good families” they come from. They implied that because those attending the party were “middle class” they would have prevented the rape had the victim screamed. These comments highlight the anti-working class prejudice inherent in the legal system.

The media often legitimised the defence’s conduct by giving voice to the most conservative ideas in society and backward attitudes about sexual consent. Reportage has been biased and salacious: some papers published descriptions of the woman’s clothes and underwear.

Socialists favour special measures to ensure that victims of sexual violence receive justice. Those bringing allegations of rape should have fair trails and the accused must also be afforded the right to trial by jury. Specialised courts should be considered which provide judge and juries with training for these cases. They have produced a higher level of convictions and less traumatic experiences in court for victims of sexual violence. Similarly, the National Union Journalist has reporting guidelines for rape and criminal cases. 

Alongside the important movement for repeal and abortion rights, a new youth movement can emerge to demand action to overhaul sex education in our schools, North and South, which is usually taught on religious grounds. Sex education needs to include the meaning of consent.
The southern government has already announced a review of the sex education curriculum. This is a reflection of the pressure being exerted by the #IBelieveHer protests and the ‘Objective Sex Education Bill’ that Ruth Coppinger and Solidarity have introduced in the Dáil (southern Irish parliament) and that is due to be discussed on 18 April.

Opposing ingrained sexism

These protests are the local reflection of #MeToo which has taken international dimensions. A movement against gender-based violence has been bubbling in society over the last few years. This was seen in the ‘rage against rape’ movement in India in late 2011 in response to the suicide of a 17 year-old rape victim. The “slut walks” saw protests across the world in the aftermath of a Canadian police officer telling students that “women should avoid dressing like sluts,” to prevent sexual violence.

The #MeToo movement brought this to a different level at the end of 2017. What began in Hollywood – with actors speaking out against the sexual assault and harassment they suffered at the hands of Harvey Weinstein – has spread around the world. Virtually every capitalist institution, from the media, to the major corporations, to parliaments, to charities, has been damaged by an avalanche of accusations. This outpouring, largely via social media, is an indication both of the continued all-pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault and an increased confidence to fight it.

In 2018 alone we have seen millions who marched against Trump and the threat he poses to women, workers’ rights, the LGBTQ community and people of colour. We have also seen the #NiUnaMenos movement against femicide in Latin America which has spread from Argentina (where a woman is murdered every 29 hours) across Latin America as a “collective cry against machista violence”.

On International Women’s Day, this year, six million women, young people and workers took part in a “feminist strike” in Spain over violence against women and the gender pay gap. Importantly this movement took up the traditional method of mass struggle of working-class people – strikes. And they learnt from the strikes against attacks on abortion rights the previous year in Poland. This movement saw 45,000 people take to the streets, this year, against attacks on abortion rights.

This movement is happening at an important juncture in Irish society – on the eve of an historic referendum campaign to repeal the 8th amendment from the Irish constitution (which equates the life of an unborn foetus with that of a woman). North and South, we live in a society where there is an incredibly low rate of conviction for rape and sexual violence yet the threat of prison hangs over women who have an abortion. It has been a movement of young people and women that has forced a referendum on this odious, anti-women amendment, including the pioneering work of ROSA in exposing that abortion in Ireland is a daily reality, including the use of abortion pills.

It will also be a grassroots movement from below that will ensure that we get pro-choice legislation, as well as win abortion rights in the north. A Yes vote will be an important step to winning women and pregnant people bodily autonomy, but also striking a blow against sexism and conservative institutions. A former UN official, commenting on the denial of abortion rights in Ireland, said: “The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Capitalism: A misogynistic system

We live in a world where the leader of the “free world” can boast at about abusing women, and where one third of women will suffer sexual violence in their life time. As ROSA activist and Socialist Party member, Laura Fitzgerald, said in her speech in Dublin the day after the Belfast trial verdict, it is necessary to “tear down all power inequalities in society, the power inequalities of sexism, the power inequalities of class.”

Capitalism inherited and maintained the oppression of women as part of its DNA. It will never willingly grant full rights to half the population for fear that the inequality on which the system is based will be challenged. It gains from the oppression of women. The unpaid work of women is estimated to stand at $10 trillion globally per annum and equal pay for women in the workplace is far from achieved. Furthermore mega-profits rest upon capitalist culture’s pushing of the sexist objectification of women’s bodies. This, and the promotion of outdated binary gender roles, which is pushed by the beauty, fashion and sex industry, makes billions in profits annually.

Why socialist feminism

The feminism of establishment figures like Hillary Clinton defends the system. There needs to be a socialist feminist challenge to capitalism in Ireland, uniting women, youth and workers. This new movement against gender-based violence and a victory on abortion rights can give a huge impetus to fight for such fundamental change.

It is no coincidence that women members of the Socialist Party and ROSA activists have been prominent in this movement and in campaigning for repeal and pro-choice legislation. It flows from a political analysis that understands the rotten nature of this system that breeds inequality and oppression. And also presenting an analysis that has confidence in the ability of women, LGBTQ people, youth and workers to challenge that system and build a socialist society free of inequality and oppression. 

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April 2018