Resignation of Donaldson amidst historical sex offences charges sparks political turmoil in Northern Ireland

The resignation of the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, has sparked fresh turmoil in Northern Irish politics.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, 61, stepped down from his position after being charged with historical sex offences alongside a 57-year-old woman. Both are scheduled to appear in court later this month. Sir Jeffrey, Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MP, resigned as leader immediately and was suspended from the DUP membership pending the outcome of the legal process. Gavin Robinson, 39, was quickly appointed as the interim DUP leader, having previously served as deputy leader since June last year.

Sir Jeffrey’s suspension could have huge implications for British and Irish politics at a time when the republican Sinn Féin, which wants a united Ireland, is seeing support surge.

The power-sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein was reinstated at Stormont in February this year, following a 24-month suspension. However, the outcome of ongoing criminal processes could pose a challenge for the DUP, potentially affecting Sir Jeffrey’s Lagan Valley seat in the upcoming general election.

Mr Robinson is expected to maintain the DUP’s participation in the power-sharing deal and keep the devolved government up and running. But Sir Jeffrey’s Good Friday resignation also adds to the instability of the DUP and means the party now has its third leader since Arlene Foster quit following an internal revolt in 2021.

It is understood both suspects were arrested on Thursday morning by Police Service of Northern Ireland detectives and questioned before being charged that night.

Concerns were first raised on Thursday evening when Sir Jeffrey pulled out of a number of public events and his social media accounts, including X/Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, were taken down on Friday morning.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) convened an emergency meeting, which commentators deemed “very significant,” preceding the release of a statement at lunchtime. The statement revealed that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP, the party’s leader, had been charged with historical allegations. Consequently, he announced his immediate resignation as leader of the DUP. As per party rules, Mr. Donaldson has been suspended from membership pending the outcome of the judicial process. In his place, Mr. Gavin Robinson MP has been unanimously appointed as the interim party leader by party officers.

A police spokesperson told The Independent: “Detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested and charged a 61-year-old man for non-recent sexual offences.

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“A 57-year-old woman was also arrested and charged at the time for aiding and abetting additional offences. Both are due to appear before Newry Magistrates Court on 24 April. As is usual procedure, all charges will be reviewed by the Public Prosecution Service.”

The shocking resignation brings an end to a 40-year run in politics for Sir Jeffrey and comes just weeks after one of the most significant decisions of his career when he chose to bring the DUP back to power-sharing.

In February the party agreed to return to Stormont following protracted negotiations over a new deal on post-Brexit trade arrangements and a series of measures aimed at providing assurances around Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom.

The move saw Michelle O’Neill, the first republican sworn in as first minister, assume office. She said she expects a vote on Irish unity to take place in the next decade.

Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Fein, has asserted that Irish unity is now within “touching distance.”

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was initially elected as the representative for Lagan Valley in 1997 with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). However, due to his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and the leadership of David Trimble, he left the UUP in 2003.

Subsequently, he joined the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2004 and has served as the Member of Parliament for Belfast East in the House of Commons since 2015. Prior to his parliamentary role, he held the position of lord mayor of Belfast from 2012 to 2013.

In 2012, Sir Jeffrey became the first DUP representative to attend a gay pride event, emphasizing his desire to engage with all sectors of society during his tenure as lord mayor.

However, he was among the 21 MPs who voted against LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education for schools in England in 2019.

Following the resignation of Edwin Poots, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was elected as the leader of the DUP in 2021. He was also honored by the Queen in her 2016 birthday honours, receiving a knighthood in recognition of his political service.

 

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