Jeffrey Donaldson, at the heart of Northern Irish politics for nearly 40 years

From Enoch Powell to post-Brexit negotiations, former DUP leader has been an influential figure for decades

Jeffrey Donaldson, who has stepped down as the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) after being charged with sexual offences of a “historical” nature, was first elected to political office in Northern Ireland almost 40 years ago and had headed his party since 2021.

The 61-year-old from the fishing village of Kilkeel in Co Down became “politically aware” at a young age, in part because of the murder of his cousin, Samuel Donaldson, in 1970, one of the first policemen to be killed in the Troubles.

The eldest of eight children, he joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Orange Order, and won his first election in 1985, becoming a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly aged 22.

At the time he was personal assistant to the UUP leader, James Molyneaux; from 1983-85 he was election agent for the MP Enoch Powell.

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In 1997 he was elected as the MP for Lagan Valley, a position he has held ever since, making him Northern Ireland’s longest-serving sitting MP – though not representing the same party.

He fell out with the then UUP leader, David Trimble, during the negotiations that led to the 1998 Belfast Agreement over police reforms and IRA decommissioning, and subsequently led a dramatic walkout from the peace talks.

The rift never healed, and his defection, along with Arlene Foster, to the DUP six years later was a defining moment for political unionism, helping broaden the support base of the late Ian Paisley’s firebrand fundamentalist party.

As well as holding on to his Lagan Valley seat at Westminster, he also represented the constituency in the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont from 2003-2010.

Although socially conservative – he was opposed to the legalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland – he is regarded as being on the more moderate wing of the DUP.

A Presbyterian, he has spoken of how the strength of his Christian belief has “helped to anchor me in the storms of politics”.

He became leader of the DUP in June 2021 after the previous incumbent, Edwin Poots – who had beaten him to the leadership only three weeks previously – resigned.

As party leader, Donaldson presided over the party’s campaign against the Northern Ireland protocol – the post-Brexit trading deal opposed by unionists who said it undermined their position as an integral part of the UK.

The resignation of the then DUP first minister, Paul Givan, in February 2022, collapsed the Executive, and the party’s refusal to nominate a replacement following the Assembly elections of May that year left the North without a government for two years.

His political skill in manoeuvering his party back into government in January, despite significant opposition from within his own party and from the unionist grassroots – as well as his robust defence of the move on the Northern media – won him widespread regard, with an impassioned address in the House of Commons regarded by many as the speech of his life.

Despite previously saying he would quit Westminster to take up the position of Deputy First Minister in a restored Assembly, instead he chose to stay in the Commons, installing his constituency colleague in Lagan Valley, Emma Little-Pengelly, in the role in February 2024.

Knighted in Queen Elizabeth’s birthday honours list in 2016, Donaldson relished his role as an MP, and until his suspension from the party would have been seen as a likely candidate for eventual appointment to the House of Lords.