Jeffrey Donaldson’s departure is only the beginning of a crisis

News of DUP leader’s resignation over ‘historical charges’ has stunned Northern Ireland

The shock was palpable.

On BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback on Friday afternoon – on air when the news broke – commentator after commentator not only spoke of their utter surprise, but showed it in the tone of their voices as they struggled to articulate what just happened.

Much like everyone else, they were trying to comprehend the news which has stunned Northern Ireland. This was, they said, “the political earthquake that no one saw coming.”

At 12.59pm, the announcement dropped into inboxes: The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, had written to the party “confirming that he has been charged with allegations of an historical nature” and is stepping down as DUP leader “with immediate effect.”

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He has been suspended as a party member and from the Orange Order and presumably must also step back as an MP.

The sexual offences he has been charged with will be the subject of a judicial process, but it is without doubt that Donaldson’s reputation – and his political credibility – has been severely damaged; the consequences will be far reaching.

This will have a huge personal impact for all involved in, and affected by it; politically, the questions pile up. What will this mean for the Lagan Valley seat? For the next general election? What about the DUP itself? For unionism? And, perhaps most importantly, for the future of the newly-restored, eight-week-old Stormont Assembly and Executive?

Donaldson was at the helm of his party for almost three years; in that time, he led the DUP out of government – collapsing the Executive and Assembly – and, earlier this year, managed to hold together a party riven by both internal disputes and opposing views on Brexit and the Irish Sea border in order to bring them back in.

It was his moment of triumph; now, his departure will reopen old wounds and could give opponents – the more hardline members of the party – an opportunity.

The scars of Brexit were only beginning to heal; this afternoon, the anti-Belfast Agreement TUV was already attempting to make hay, saying “unionism must steady itself and cut adrift the Donaldson folly of accepting an Irish Sea border and rule by EU law.”

The electoral impact of this will remain to be seen, though opponents in Lagan Valley – not least Alliance’s Sorcha Eastwood – will no doubt fancy their chances in any byelection, while the DUP will be glad there seems to be a bit of clear water between Donaldson’s suspension and the forthcoming UK general election.

The party must be thankful, though, that it was Emma Little-Pengelly, not Donaldson, who took on the role of Deputy First Minister in the restored Assembly and Executive. Had Donaldson been in that post – the joint head of Northern Ireland’s government – then this could have been the sort of crisis that brings down Stormont.

As it stands, the immediate focus is towards stability; after a prolonged period of suspension, it will be in nobody’s interests to collapse the devolved government again, and the expectation is that the DUP – and Little-Pengelly, a close ally of Donaldson – will seek to distance themselves from the now former leader of the DUP and emphasise that it is business as usual.

Yet this is a crisis which is just beginning, which has sent shock waves through the politics of this place and these islands, and which will continue to play out in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Donaldson was at the apex of his career; so much so that in another BBC broadcast, the Red Lines podcast released only a few days ago, commentators talked of him as a shoo-in for a seat in the House of Lords. This, and so much more, now lies in tatters.

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