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Northern Ireland party chief quits over sex offenses charges

March 29, 2024

Jeffrey Donaldson is the longest-serving lawmaker from Northern Ireland in the British parliament. He joined the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in 2004 and became its leader in 2021.

Jeffrey Donaldson gives a speech to DUP members at the high-end La Mon hotel in September, 2021
Democratic Unionist Party chief Jeffrey Donaldson is facing historic sexual offenses chargesImage: Peter Morrison/PA Wire/dpa/picture alliance

The leader of Northern Ireland's main pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Jeffrey Donaldson has stepped down after being charged by police over historic offenses, the party said Friday.

"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," a DUP statement said.

Police confirm charges of historic 'sex offences'

The DUP gave no details of what the charges were but UK media cited a spokesperson from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as saying that a 61-year-old man had been arrested and charged with "non-recent sex offences."

British police generally do not identify suspects by name.

"A 57-year-old woman was also arrested and charged at the time for aiding and abetting additional offences," the PSNI spokesperson added.

The pair are due to appear in court on April 24.

The DUP said Donaldson had been suspended, pending the outcome of a judicial process.

Gavin Robinson, a fellow lawmaker in the UK parliament, has been appointed as the interim party leader.

Social media accounts removed

Speculation had been rising as to Donaldson's future as reports emerged overnight of a planned emergency party meeting and after his social media accounts were deleted.

The Belfast Telegraph said Donaldson had withdrawn from several public events at short notice a day earlier.

Who is Jeffrey Donaldson?

Donaldson is one of Northern Ireland's best-known politicians and is the UK territory's longest-serving lawmaker in the British parliament.

He became an MP in 1997, initially for the Ulster Unionist Party, but left over the party's support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that largely ended decades of sectarian violence between republicans and unionists in Northern Ireland.

The agreement cemented a system of power-sharing between nationalists and unionists which has collapsed several times.

Donaldson joined the DUP in 2004 and became party leader in 2021. He was also a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly from 2003-2010.

He has been a pivotal party figure, pulling the DUP from Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration for more than two years in 2022 to pressure the UK government to amend post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The party only agreed to return to power-sharing with the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein earlier this year following a series of assurances from London.

That decision led to fierce criticism from some within the DUP, who said the deal had undermined Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom.

It also allowed Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill to become the British region's first Irish nationalist First Minister, a delayed result of the Northern Irish assembly elections in 2022.

Asked about Donaldson's resignation, O'Neill said Friday the case was "now a matter for the criminal justice system."

"My priority is to continue to provide the leadership the public expect and deserve, and to ensure the four-party executive coalition delivers for the whole of our community now and in the future," she said.

'We are in the decade of opportunity,' says Michelle O'Neill

DUP faces challenge in upcoming UK vote

As the biggest unionist party, the DUP is the voice of Northern Ireland voters who seek to maintain the region's historic ties to Britain, while Sinn Fein seeks unification with the Republic of Ireland to the south.

Donaldson had been expected to lead his party into the next UK general election, expected later this year.

mm/wd (AFP, AP, Reuters)