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‘Not guilty’ does not equal ‘innocent’ in any language

An Cailín Rua

Diageo decision laudable but also shines light on relationship between alcohol and sexual assaults

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

As I write, social media is buzzing with the news that drinks company Diageo has just withdrawn its 27-year sponsorship of UK rugby club London Irish, citing the recent signing of Paddy Jackson. Jackson is probably best known, not for his considerable talent at fly-half, but for his high-profile involvement in a rape case in Northern Ireland 2018 alongside fellow players Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy, and Rory Harrison. All four men were eventually acquitted, but not before every ugly detail of the trial and details of their behaviour throughout the incident were broadcast across the island and beyond.
The effects of that trial, of course, on survivors of sexual assault have not been fully documented, but anecdotally, they have been far-ranging and in some cases, devastating, sometimes impacting negatively on decisions to pursue justice through the courts. Though of course, this cannot currently be quantified.
Interestingly, London Irish in their response to the announcement said:  “The club has always respected the right for everyone to have an opinion, and their right to express that opinion.” It is currently unclear what is meant by that statement, but it’s possible that they felt that, in their opinion, the decision to sign Jackson was just fine. That’s all very well, but London Irish have now become the latest entity to understand that freedom of speech brings both responsibilities and consequences.
Diageo, when releasing their statement claimed that the decision by London Irish was ‘not consistent with their values’. One of Diageo’s stated values is to ‘act sensitively with the highest standards of integrity and social responsibility’. Their decision, in this light, is laudable.
Alongside this decision, however, it is also worth looking at the role of alcohol and its relationship with sexual assault, from which the company – or indeed any other drinks producer – cannot fully divorce itself.
Typically, consumption of alcohol lowers inhibitions, can increase aggression, and can facilitate the use of force. Evidence shows that alcohol is a significant factor in cases of rape and sexual assault. It can – and does – contribute to situations in which sexual violence is more likely to occur, it can be used to incapacitate victims, to excuse poor and violent behaviour, and to blame victims. In 2009, the Rape and Justice in Ireland Report (RAJI) revealed that 76 per cent of rape defendants in the study had been drinking at the time of the alleged rape, while 70 percent of women studied reported drinking at the time they were raped. Alcohol was involved in over 45 percent of adult women’s unwanted sexual experiences.
The jury in the Belfast Rape trial were told by Jackson’s representative in court that ‘drunk consent is still consent’. This is simply not true.
Let’s be clear – alcohol in itself does not cause sexual assault, nor is it a requirement for it to occur. The only thing ever to cause sexual assault is the perpetrator. But it is notable that on the night he behaved so badly, Jackson claimed to have consumed ‘six or seven’ pints of Guinness along with a number of gin and tonics. Are drinks companies doing enough to mitigate against alcohol being a factor in incidents of sexual assault? Or in a free country, should they even have to consider that responsibility?
In a statement after the trial, Jackson said he would ‘always regret’ the events of that night and apologised ‘unreservedly’ for messages he sent in the aftermath – messages that were deeply misogynistic and derogatory about the defendant. However, Jackson’s solicitor had already, in the immediate aftermath of the acquittal issued a statement which cast aspersions on the defendant and her motivations. This suggests that Jackson’s remorse was not exactly heartfelt. One might legitimately wonder whether he had availed of some PR advice in the interim.
Jackson might have been acquitted of rape, but ‘not guilty’ does not equal ‘innocent’ in any language. What was however proven in court, beyond a shadow of a doubt is that he and his companions behaved despicably. In this instance, he was clearly capable of ugly and abusive attitudes and behaviour towards women. And in this day and age, who really wants to be associated with that?