All four defendants in the Belfast rape trial have been found not guilty on all charges.

Ulster and Ireland rugby player Paddy Jackson has been acquitted of rape and sexual assault, while his team-mate Stuart Olding has been acquitted of rape.

Blane McIlroy has been found not guilty of exposure. Rory Harrison has been found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and not guilty withholding information.

The jury reached its unanimous verdicts on all counts after three hours and 40 minutes of deliberation.

During the nine-week trial, Mr Jackson, 26, from Oakleigh Park, Belfast, and Mr Olding, 25, of Ardenlee Street in the city, had denied raping the same woman at a house in south Belfast on 28 June 2016.

Mr Jackson denied a further charge of sexual assault.

Mr McIlroy, 26, of Royal Lodge Road, Belfast, had denied exposure while Mr Harrison, 25, of Manse Road, denied perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

All four men stood in the glass dock of courtroom number 12 in the Laganside complex as the verdicts were read out.

The judge had earlier warned members of the public not to react. 

Three defendants - Mr Jackson, Mr McIlroy and Mr Harrison - were permitted to leave the dock first.

Judge Smyth said: "The jury has found you not guilty. You are free to leave the dock."

A short time later the court was told that no evidence had been offered by prosecutors on a charge of vaginal rape against Stuart Olding.

Judge Patricia Smyth directed the jury to find him not guilty.

Allowing Mr Olding to go free, the judge said: "Mr Olding the jury has found you not guilty of this count also and you are now free to leave the dock."

Speaking outside court Paddy Jackson thanked the judge and jury for giving him a fair trial.

He also thanked his parents and his siblings.

He said that out of respect for his employers he would not be making any further comment.

His solicitor also spoke to reporters.

Blane McIlroy left the courthouse without commenting.

Solicitor Paul Dougan, read out a statement written by Stuart Olding, saying: "As you will appreciate, everyone including Mr Olding is in a heightened state of emotion and it would not be appropriate for him to answer questions today.

"And I would ask that you respect that."

Reading the statement, Mr Dougan said: "I want to acknowledge that the complainant came to court and gave evidence about her perception of those events.

"I am sorry for the hurt that was caused to the complainant. It was never my intention to cause any upset to anyone on that night.

"I don't agree with her perception of events, and I maintain that everything that happened that evening was consensual.

"I have consistently told the truth to the police and the court when asked to account for my conduct.

"The Stuart Olding who has been portrayed over the past nine weeks in this trial is not the real Stuart Olding.

"I am fiercely proud to represent my province and my country. I have worked very hard to achieve those goals.
"I hope to be able to prove myself going forward in all aspects of my life.

"I would like to thank my legal team for their hard work and their belief in me throughout.

"And finally to my family, thank you all for standing by me from the beginning."


Read more: Jackson and Olding suspension continues pending IRFU review


The complainant in the case is said to be "upset and disappointed with the outcome", according to the senior investigating officer in the case Detective Superintendent Zoe McKee.

Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman, head of the public protection branch at the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: "This has been a difficult time for all those involved in this trial. We have faith and trust in the legal system and respect the verdict.

"I would like to pay tribute to the young woman who had the resolve and confidence to come forward and put her faith in police and the criminal justice process.

"In addition to this, she was named on social media sites during the trial contrary to her legal entitlement. Any breach of this entitlement is and will be investigated.

"This case has provoked much comment and debate, while we respect today's verdict it should not deter victims of serious sexual crime from contacting police."

"As police officers our role is to keep people safe. Anyone can be the victim of sexual crime regardless of age, background, status or gender.

"There is no room in society for tolerance of sexual crime. We understand how difficult it can be for someone to report a rape, but let me assure you today that if you choose to speak to police, you will be listened to, respected, treated sensitively, have your report thoroughly investigated, and you will be signposted to support services such as Nexus and Victim Support among others.

"We will continue to work hard to improve outcomes for offences of rape and sexual assault working in collaboration with the Public Prosecution Service and other partners.

"Our message is clear, please continue to report."

Meanwhile, the Public Prosecution Service issued a statement saying it respected the verdict that was reached.

It went on to say that the evidence in this case was subjected to "a very thorough and careful examination" by a team of experienced lawyers before it was concluded that the Test for Prosecution was met.

 "This meant that there was both sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction and it was in the public interest to prosecute," Marianne O'Kane, PPS Assistant Director and Head of the PPS's Serious Crime Unit, said.

"This case was properly brought before the Courts and overcame a number of legal challenges.  It was ultimately right that the matter was placed before a jury to make their determination."
 

The high-profile trial was originally scheduled for five weeks but lasted for nine weeks at Belfast Crown Court.

In total, 30 witnesses gave evidence including the four defendants and the complainant whose testimony was heard over eight separate days, and verdicts were returned on day 42.

The court heard from 10 police officers, two doctors, a forensic scientist and a taxi driver who had driven the complainant home on the night in question.

When the trial opened on 30 January, a total of 12 jurors were sworn in - nine men and three women.

But about halfway through the panel was reduced to 11 after one juror was discharged because of illness.

There were emotional scenes outside the courtroom as family and friends of the accused hugged and kissed each other.

The Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby issued a statement after the verdict was handed down.

It said IRFU and Ulster Rugby officials will review the matter, "in line with existing procedures for all contracted players. A Review Committee, made up of senior representatives of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby, has been appointed and will conclude its review as soon as practicable. The players will continue to be relieved of all duties while the Review Committee is in process and determining its findings."

Additional reporting: PA