DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson resigns after sex offence charges

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The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-UK party resigned on Friday after being charged with “historical” sex offences, stunning the region just two months after clinching a deal to restore the region’s power-sharing executive.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, 61, had led the Democratic Unionist party since 2021 and had been a central player in the region’s politics since becoming an MP in 1997.

In a statement issued on Friday, the DUP 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.”

Northern Ireland’s police service said in a statement on Friday morning that a 61-year-old man had been charged with non-recent sexual offences. It said a 57-year-old woman had also been arrested and charged for aiding and abetting additional offences. The statement did not disclose the identities of those charged.

The two people were arrested on Thursday and taken to Antrim police station, where they were interviewed and charged. Both are due to appear before Newry Magistrates’ Court on April 24.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said: “As is usual procedure, all charges will be reviewed by the Public Prosecution Service.”

A spokesperson for the House of Commons said: “We are aware of the announcement by the police, but will not be commenting on individual cases.”

Donaldson, whose social media accounts were deleted overnight, would be replaced by Gavin Robinson as the DUP’s interim leader, the party said.

The longest-serving MP in Northern Ireland, Donaldson threw the region into turmoil in 2022 when he pulled his party out of the Stormont executive in a row over post-Brexit trade rules.

But he negotiated key concessions in months of bilateral talks with the UK government that paved the way for Stormont’s return in February.

Hardline unionists welcomed Donaldson’s tough Brexit stance but the DUP fell to 24 per cent support in the latest Lucid Talk poll in February behind Sinn Féin on 31 per cent.

Michelle O’Neill of the pro-Irish unity Sinn Féin party became first minister, the first non-unionist to hold the post. The DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly became deputy first minister, a coequal role at the helm of the executive.

On Friday O’Neill said Donaldson’s case was 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 in a statement.

It was not immediately clear whether Donaldson would resign as an MP, a move which would trigger a by-election in his Lagan Valley constituency.

The UK’s Northern Ireland Office had no immediate comment but Chris Heaton-Harris, Northern Ireland secretary, was understood not to have been aware of any investigation into Donaldson.

Officials at Westminster said the Speaker of the House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle had been made aware of the situation and that the DUP had stated Donaldson would not be coming on to the parliamentary estate after the Easter recess.

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