The Belfast Rugby Trial: One Year on in Northern Ireland
Content warning: discussions of sexual violence, assault and rape.
The Belfast rugby rape trial, which concluded in March 2018, sent shockwaves around the island of Ireland and beyond. Seen as a catalyst for Northern Ireland’s #MeToo movement, the press coverage of the trial was shocking, and provoked outrage among those who support victims of sexual assault. Protests and rallies were sparked on both sides of the border following the acquittal of the rugby players on trial, with people coming out in their thousands to say, vehemently, #IBelieveHer. The trial brought attention to both the way the justice system and society at large treat survivors of sexual assault, and to the acute lack of services for victims of assault in Northern Ireland. The complainant disclosed during the course of the trial that after googling “Belfast rape crisis centre” and going there with a friend, she found that the service was no longer operating. In fact, there are still no dedicated rape crisis centres in the city of Belfast. The nearest facility is the Rowan sexual assault referral centre, an hour by bus from Belfast, which is based in the grounds of the Antrim County hospital.
While the trial was being splashed on the front pages of newspapers both sides of the border, groups who had already been working on re-establishing a dedicated centre for victims of sexual assault found more support for their cause. At the time, there were talks of a dedicated centre being set up in the city by November 2018. However, after a quick Google at the time of writing this article, it seems that this has yet to happen. In a Guardian article on the subject in June 2018, individuals and organisations working to establish this centre discussed how the lack of a Northern Ireland Assembly was hindering their progress. With no devolved government in place, it was even harder to secure funding and support for a service such as this.
This lack of a dedicated service is not to say that no one is trying to help victims of sexual assault in Northern Ireland. Charities such as Women’s Aid and Nexus offer helplines and counselling to victims, and the Rowan Institute provides forensic sampling to victims, whether or not they decide to press charges. However, there is something very telling in this gap, about how little Northern Ireland has changed in the wake of the Belfast rape trial, and in how women are treated there. Since the trial, there has been a referendum south of the border repealing the Eighth Amendment, and legislation to allow for abortion. This is not the case for Northern Ireland, the one remaining place where abortion is illegal in the British Isles. Some recommendations were made following the trial about how trials involving rape are conducted in Northern Ireland. However, there has been little change- again, most likely inhibited by the lack of a functioning government in Northern Ireland. While the DUP hold Theresa May under their thumb regarding Brexit and the border, victims of sexual assault, individuals who need abortions, and people who want to marry their same sex partner are all pushed to the background. In the meantime, two of the rugby players involved in the trial have gone on to play club rugby in France, while the complainant is consigned to the history books, and another case is added to the abysmal statistics of rape convictions in Northern Ireland.
We are over one year on from the conclusion of the trial, a conclusion which left all those who have experienced sexual assault, and all those who listen to and believe victims, desolate. And yet, still nothing has changed. Now, again, we must gather together to support those who are at their most vulnerable. We must raise awareness of this lack of services in Northern Ireland, and, if we are in a position to, donate to the few charities who are doing their best to support victims of sexual assault.