The Belfast rape case and women’s rights

The nine-week rape trial in Belfast gripped not only the interest of many people in the North of Ireland but many in the South as well. I normally don’t take much, if any, interest in these cases as I regard them as normally fixating on individual questions of evil or wrong doing and diverting from social problems that often lie behind individual misfortune.  They often seem to be exercises in schadenfreude and prurience for many people.

I followed this case because it quickly became apparent that it involved not only trauma for the young woman at the centre of it, and a question of the guilt or otherwise of the four accused, but because it didn’t so much divert attention to an individual assault considered in isolation, as draw into focus sexual violence against women in general, and by extension wider questions of the position of women in society.

The verdict of not guilty found on behalf of the four accused – two charged of rape, one of indecent exposure and one of perverting the course of justice – prompted demonstrations outside the court in Belfast and in Dublin city centre, as well as a couple of other Irish towns.

This was a result of a number of factors, including the ‘celebrity’ status of the accused, with those charged with rape being prominent rugby players who had turned out for Ulster and Ireland, and the way the case was conducted.

For example: the trial involved the young woman being questioned over 8 days while each of the accused sat for no more than one day in the box. The latter was due of course to the decision of the prosecuting lawyers, who must have decided that while the testimony of one woman had required eight appearances, that of each of the accused warranted no more than one.  No wonder it is claimed that it is often the woman who appears to be on trial.

Two other points stood out.  The defence barrister’s summing up included the statement “why didn’t she scream the house down? A lot of very middle-class girls were downstairs. They were not going to tolerate rape or anything like that.”  Unlike presumably working class women?  That anyone thought this was a good argument to put to a jury says something for some attitudes in the legal profession.

This alone makes the statement of the Green Party politician Claire Bailey, that the case was not about class but only about gender, mistaken.  As the young woman texted in the morning after – “What happened was not consensual. I’m not going to the police. I’m not going up against Ulster Rugby. Yea because that’ll work.”

If one sport in Northern Ireland can be regarded as steeped in class it’s rugby, with its roots in ‘middle class’ grammar schools and traditionally played by Protestants.

It’s not something I have any affinity with, even though I had to play it at school. My father had no interest in it at all and used to tell me it was a game for the toffs; I should support Wales because it at least had working class players.  And while the development of the professional game has eroded such factors, I get the impression that this isn’t quite so much the case in the North of Ireland. Having been to one Ulster rugby match I could tell it was nothing like watching football.

The other crucial point was exposure of the numerous Whatsapp messages between the accused after the party at which the rape was alleged to have taken place, which were crudely misogynistic.  It is these displays of vulgar insults against women which have been taken up by subsequent protests and that has fuelled the continuing controversy, precisely because there is no denying their provenance.

On top of these was the less than contrite tone, in fact many might say quite aggressive tone, of the statement following the trial by the defence solicitor for the most prominent of the accused.  The latter hardly smoothed the waters by threatening to sue those who questioned the verdict on social media afterwards.  His more contrite tone in a statement issued nine days later was dismissed by many as way too late, with the suspicion voiced that it had more to do with countering the growing call for an end to his current rugby career than being a genuine act of regret.

Calls, including a petition and newspaper advert, for the players not to be selected again for Ulster and Ireland were countered by opposite calls by other Ulster rugby supporters, who said they would refuse to buy season tickets if the players were not selected again.

Call me paranoid if you want, but when I read statements that seem to see only the man as the victim, that claim to be from the “silent majority’ (who are of course never silent when they make this claim, irrespective of whether they are actually a majority or not); and use other common reactionary tropes such as being “real fans” of Ulster, presumably in contrast to the unreal(?) ones who called for them not to be selected again; well I think I’m entitled to argue that this ‘silent majority’ are also reactionaries who are oblivious to the misogynistic rants of their heroes and the gravity of the effect of their behaviour, whether criminal or not.

I’m afraid however that I must also say that I don’t give a shit whether they represent Ireland and Ulster again or not, and not just because I don’t give a shit about rugby itself.  The Green politician Claire Bailey again said that “this is my Ulster team as well’ – she must be a fan of rugby; while for me the very idea that a sports team could represent a whole country or province is such a lot of fictional nonsense that only buying into the notion of a united ‘national interest’ or un-conflicted ‘national identity’ could make any of this in any way rational. But then nationalism is essentially reactionary anyway, and all the more powerful for being uncritically assumed in many different circumstances, including this one.

I’ve never felt that something being Irish meant I had to have some positive feelings about it, from the Irish State to Irish beef from Irish cows – what the hell is an Irish cow?  These people never ‘represented’ me at any time, no matter what might be understood by such an idea.

However, if there is one thing more powerful than nationalism it is the power of money, and it may well have been that the power of money coming from sponsors has weighed more heavily than anything in the club’s decision that the players will no longer play for them.

For those campaigning for such a decision, this will be seen as a victory against a misogynist culture within the sport, including a victory for women rugby players, with wider ramifications for the position of women in society.  Unfortunately, it is by no means obvious that the demands of the Belfast Feminist Network raised during protests are altogether progressive.

There can’t be any objection to improved education against misogyny, and in this case on the question of consent, but the oppression suffered by women is grounded in much more fundamental aspects of society than the culture of the media, justice system and education.  All aspects of the same state from which they expect a solution.

As I’ve noted, far from class being irrelevant, the explicit references to it and the role of money in determining one outcome of the case demonstrates that the position of many women in society, and women as a whole, is based on inequalities of power that are rooted in the class structure of society.  It will simply not be possible for women to achieve full equality if class inequality remains.

This is neither a claim that women’s demands must be dropped while class demands are pursued, or that progress on removing class oppression will of itself remove oppression suffered by women.  It is a claim that women’s equality cannot be simply gender equality within a class-ridden capitalist system.  This meets neither the interests of working class women or of men.

The goal of a socialist society is the free development of the individual from social oppression, not from the individual antagonisms that eventuate from imperfect human beings who will never live in a perfect society, even if that term meant anything.  This is not an excuse for continued sexism but a claim that ending social oppression can only arise out of the struggle to which socialism is devoted, and that this must include the ending of systematic oppression of women, plus repression of gay people and an end to all forms of racism.

Most immediately in Ireland the outcome of the Belfast rape trial shows the importance of repealing the eighth amendment to the Irish constitution which criminalises abortion.

There is widespread commentary that, while there is sympathy among some that women should be allowed to have an abortion in cases of rape, the eighth amendment should not be repealed because legislation will be introduced that facilitates abortion up to 12 weeks in cases where there hasn’t been rape.

What this case shows is that even on this rather narrow ground this is indefensible.  We already know that most sexual assaults aren’t reported and this case has shown what sometimes happens even when they are.  What it highlights, is the need for women to be able to control their own bodies. The fight against rape is one such fight and so is the struggle for abortion rights.