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DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson resigns after being charged with historical sex offences

Northern Irish politics has been thrown into fresh turmoil with the resignation of the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party after he was charged with historical sex offences.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, 61, and a 57-year-old woman were both arrested and charged and are due to appear in court later this month.

The dramatic development prompted Sir Jeffrey, Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MP, to step down as leader with immediate effect and he was suspended from the DUP membership pending the outcome of the judicial process.

Gavin Robinson, 39, was swiftly appointed interim DUP leader after taking on the deputy leadership role in June last year.

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

Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Fein was only restored at Stormont in February this year after a 24-month hiatus and depending on the outcome of the criminal process, the DUP could face a credible challenge for Sir Jeffrey’s Lagan Valley seat in the forthcoming general election.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and a 57-year-old woman were arrested and charged – both are due to appear in court later this month (Getty)
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and a 57-year-old woman were arrested and charged – both are due to appear in court later this month (Getty)

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 DUP held an emergency meeting, described by commentators as “very significant”, before the party released a statement at lunchtime.

It said: “The party chairman has received a letter from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP confirming that he has been charged with allegations of an historical nature and indicating that he is stepping down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party with immediate effect.

“In accordance with the party rules, the party officers have suspended Mr Donaldson from membership, pending the outcome of a judicial process. The party officers have this morning unanimously appointed Mr Gavin Robinson MP as the interim party leader.”

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.

“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.”

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’ (Reuters)
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’ (Reuters)

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.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has said Irish unity is now within “touching distance”.

Sir Jeffrey was elected as the representative for Lagan Valley in 1997 with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). However in 2003, following long-standing opposition to the Good Friday Agreement and the leadership of David Trimble, he announced he would leave the UUP.

He joined the DUP in 2004 and has been the MP for Belfast East in the House of Commons since 2015 and was previously lord mayor of Belfast from 2012–2013.

In 2012 he became the first DUP representative to attend a gay pride event, saying that as lord mayor he wanted to “engage with every section of our society”.

But he is one of 21 MPs who in 2019 voted against LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education for schools in England.

He was elected DUP leader in 2021 after the resignation of Edwin Poots. He was recognised by the Queen in her 2016 birthday honours and given a knighthood for his political service.