Jeffrey Donaldson resigns as DUP leader after being charged with sex offences

Gavin Robinson appointed interim party leader following emergency meeting of party officers

Jeffrey Donaldson has resigned as the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) after being charged by police with sexual offences “of an historical nature”.

In a statement released on Friday, the party said it had received a letter from Mr Donaldson “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”.

The DUP’s senior party officers have now suspended the Lagan Valley MP “in accordance with the party rules…pending the outcome of a judicial process”.

DUP deputy leader Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim party leader, a move unanimously backed following an emergency meeting of party officers on Friday.

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Mr Donaldson, who is one of the 12 party officers, has led the DUP since 2021.

The 61-year-old Lagan Valley MP, who is from Kilkeel in Co Down, is the longest-serving MP from Northern Ireland, having been first elected to the Houses Parliament in 1997.

He was instrumental in securing a deal with the UK government on post-Brexit trading arrangements that led to the restoration of Stormont last month.

His resignation follows two years of a political deadlock in the North after the DUP collapsed Stormont in February 2022 in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol rules on post-Brexit trading.

Mr Donaldson led intensive pre-Christmas talks with Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle and on January 30th announced his party had endorsed a deal to restore the power-sharing institutions.

Representing the more moderate wing of the party, his shock departure will have a major impact on the stability of the institutions.

Attempts to contact Mr Donaldson, who travelled to his London apartment on Friday morning, proved unsuccessful but it is understood that he intends to contest the allegations strenuously.

Speaking on Friday evening, Mr Robinson said: “It has been a devastating revelation and has caused tremendous shock not just for myself personally or my colleagues within the DUP but for the community right across Northern Ireland.

“We are a party of individuals who believe in justice,” he said. “We have faith in our criminal justice system and so, in the coming days and months, I think it is important that none of us say anything or act in any way that would seek to prejudice what is now an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill issued a brief statement following Mr Donaldson’s announcement and said it was her priority to “continue to provide the leadership the public expect and deserve”.

She said she wanted to “ensure the four-party Executive coalition delivers for the whole of our community now and in the future.

“The DUP leader has resigned after being charged with serious offences. This is now a matter for the criminal justice system,” she added.

On Thursday evening, Mr Donaldson’s social media accounts appeared to have been deleted. It is unclear why this happened and the DUP did not comment on the matter.

Photographs of Mr Donaldson and his profile were removed from the DUP website shortly after his resignation.

In recent days, he had released a statement on the accounts to congratulate Simon Harris on becoming the new Fine Gael leader.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said that while the circumstances relating to Mr Donaldson stepping down are “of concern and in the public interest”, he was also mindful that it is now a criminal investigation and it would not be “proper to comment further”.

Mr Beattie said that the leadership of the DUP is a “matter for the DUP”.

He added: “In all matters of this nature, we must first and foremost consider the victims and what impact media and public attention will have on them.

“The Ulster Unionist Party will be making no further comment.”

An Alliance party spokesman said: “Given that there is now an active criminal investigation underway, we do not feel it would be appropriate to comment any further at this time.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said Mr Donaldson’s resignation has “very wide ramifications” for unionism.

“The damage is not limited to his party but impacts unionism as a whole,” he said. “Unionism was already divided by the Donaldson deal. This needs to be a cathartic moment for unionism.

“Unionism must steady itself and cut adrift the Donaldson folly of accepting an Irish Sea border and rule by EU law.”

The Government in Dublin said it is ready to work with Mr Robinson.

“We are aware of developments in Northern Ireland and that Jeffrey Donaldson has stepped down as Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party with immediate effect,” a Government spokesman said. “The Government stands ready to work with Gavin Robinson who has now been appointed as interim leader of his party.”

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin said: “We note the appointment of an interim leader of the DUP. We will continue to work with all parties to ensure the full and effective functioning of the Good Friday Agreement institutions.”

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