Hundreds of people joined a protest in Cork City on Wednesday 14th November to demonstrate their anger in response to a recent rape trial in which a 27 year-old man was found not guilty of raping a 17 year-old girl. It was comments, however, made by counsel for the defendant, Elizabeth O’Connell SC, which drew outrage from the public. In her closing remarks to the court and to the jury, O’Connell suggested that the clothing worn by the alleged victim should be taken into account when coming to a deliberation. The counsel said, “does the evidence out-rule the possibility that she was attracted to the defendant and was open to meeting someone and being with someone? You have to look at the way she was dressed. She was wearing a thong with a lace front.”
The remarks made caused a backlash from not only the feminist community but from large sections of the public in general. In particular the scandal reached across all media platforms following the actions taken by Solidarity TD, Ruth Coppinger, in the Dáil on the 12th of November. In front of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Coppinger slammed the comments made by Elizabeth O’Connell as she simultaneously held up a pair of thongs in the chamber. In response to this, Varadkar said “it doesn’t matter what you wear. It doesn’t matter where you went, who you went with or what you took, whether it was drugs or alcohol.”
The proceedings, which took place in the Cork courthouse, was just one in a long list of incidents where the alleged victim’s clothing has been used against them. However, in light of this most recent case, a socialist feminist movement known as ROSA, decided to organise a rally in Cork City to show that Ireland should no longer continue to facilitate ‘victim blaming’ in Irish courts. Approximately 400 people joined in the protest, which began outside Brown Thomas on St Patrick’s Street. While those attending were predominantly female, there were also a good number of male participants.
UCC’s feminist society were influential in the event and their finance officer, Ellen Byrne was the first to speak to the crowd. Byrne said in her speech, “the toxic and dangerous culture of victim blaming is a betrayal against our fellow humans and the weight of the responsibility does not rest solely on the judge’s gavel.” Also taking part in the protest was Mary Crilly, who works with the Cork Sexual Violence Centre. She continues to fight for the corner of women’s rights and during the rally she said, “what do they want young girls to go back to, wear chastity belts or something? I’m just furious about this because young girls have a right to go out and wear what they want…..I’ve met 80 year olds who have been raped and I’ve met 14 year olds who have been raped and they’ve worn jeans and long johns, it really doesn’t matter what they wear. We need to reform the courts and get guidelines in place”.
Another key organiser of the remonstration was Cork City Councillor, Fiona Ryan. The Solidarity representative led the protestors in several chants and also spearheaded the unexpected and unplanned march to the courthouse opposite Cork City Hall. Walking down Oliver Plunkett Street and down South Mall, traffic was halted by the marchers as bystanders looked on with interest. When Councillor Ryan reached the steps of the courthouse she encouraged those who brought thongs and underwear with them to place them down on the ground or on the railings for everyone to see. The final image of this was a powerful one and has circulated the nation and beyond over the last two weeks.
Councillor Ryan spoke to the University Express during the protest and when asked what the protest was to show she replied, “today was to demand action on judicial reform, the reality is this is standard and what happened last week is the average. We hope this is the catalyst but certainly we have to organise ourselves to bring this movement forward in order to put pressure on the political establishment.”
Earlier in the year the Express reported that the FemSoc society had managed to put together consent classes during orientation week this year. Their hope is that these classes will become mandatory in the future for incoming students. However, there remains doubt over the effectiveness of this at such a late stage of development in a person’s life. Responding to this and whether consent needs to be taught in secondary school Ryan said, “absolutely it should be a part of a program of sexual education in our school system, absolutely. We in Solidarity are putting together a sex-education bill which will have consent at its foundation. Fine Gael are currently battling that because it really takes on the church control of our education system”.