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Donaldson resignation follows almost 40 years in politics

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s resignation as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party comes after an almost 40-year run in politics.

The DUP said on Friday that Sir Jeffrey had been charged with “allegations of a historical nature” and that he would be stepping down as leader.

His exit from the role comes 26 years after he dramatically walked out of the Northern Ireland peace talks on Good Friday 1998.

The sudden resignation also occurred weeks after one of the other most significant decisions of his career when he chose to bring the DUP back to powersharing.

Sir Jeffrey assumed leadership of the DUP during a turbulent time for the party which saw it boycott Northern Ireland’s political institutions in protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Stormont Assembly
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson became DUP leader in July 2021 following the resignation of Edwin Poots (Liam McBurney/PA)

Unionists had long protested against requirements for checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, saying they created an Irish Sea border.

Believing that the Government was not responding fast enough to his concerns, Sir Jeffrey collapsed the Stormont powersharing institutions in 2022.

After protracted negotiations, the party agreed to return to Stormont in February following the agreement of a new deal on trade arrangements and a series of measures aimed at providing assurances around Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom.

Speaking to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak about the deal which led to a resumption of powersharing, Sir Jeffrey said: “The Union is more secure as a result of our combined endeavours and together we have greatly enhanced the potential to build a strong and prosperous economy that will help to cement our peace in Northern Ireland.”

However, the DUPs dealings with Government were not universally welcome and Sir Jeffrey told the Commons in January that he had been subjected to threats during the negotiations.

Later, a PSNI spokesperson said no offences were detected following an investigation – while Sir Jeffrey said a decision was made not to press charges.

He said: “We must stand against those who would seek to bully with violent threats. I wasn’t intimidated out of politics 30 years ago and I won’t be intimidated in 2024.”

Sir Jeffrey, who is the longest-serving MP in Northern Ireland, became DUP leader in July 2021 following the resignation of Edwin Poots.

He had originally put his name forward to become leader after Arlene Foster was ousted following internal party unrest, but was narrowly defeated by Mr Poots in the DUP’s first ever leadership election months earlier.

Born in Kilkeel in Co Down, Sir Jeffrey first joined the the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) at a young age.

The 61-year-old has previously spoken about the first time the Troubles affected his family – the murder of his cousin Samuel Donaldson, an RUC constable.

He was the first police officer to be blown up by the IRA in the conflict.

It was this event that influenced Sir Jeffrey’s decision to enter political life.

At the age of 16, he followed his family tradition by becoming a member of the Orange Order, and later followed in the footsteps of his late father Jim by joining the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR).

He has described himself as a “proud royalist” but has also spoken about the Irish “element” of his identity.

Recently talking about his UDR cap, he said: “I value my Britishness as represented by the crown but I also value the Irish element of my identity as represented by the harp.

“To be Northern Irish and British is not at all a mutually exclusive thing.”

In 1985, aged 22, he was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, becoming the youngest person to win a seat at Stormont.

Rev Ian Paisley at stormont
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, centre, originally put his name forward to become leader after Arlene Foster, right, was ousted (Paul Faith/PA)

His relationship with former UUP leader David Trimble began to crumble over the Good Friday Agreement.

Sir Jeffrey, who had been a senior member of the Ulster Unionists’ negotiationg delegation, led a walkout of the 1998 peace talks after opposing the early release of republican and loyalist prisoners.

Alongside Mrs Foster, the pair had been part of a tight-knit group dubbed the “baby barristers” who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, the release of paramilitary prisoners and the direction in which then-UUP leader Mr Trimble was taking the party.

Hours before the historic accord was struck, the Lagan Valley MP famously left Castle Buildings at Stormont.

Last year, he said he harboured “no regrets” about the decision, adding: “What I have done is dedicate my career and my political involvement in the last 25 years to fixing the bits that haven’t worked, to getting solutions to the bits that weren’t properly addressed in 1998, and I continue in that endeavour.”

He, and Mrs Foster, left the party and joined the DUP in January 2004.

In 2009, Sir Jeffrey apologised for claiming for pay-to-view films on his parliamentary expenses during hotel stays.

He denied the films were adult in nature and repaid the £555 while saying he was wrong to submit the claims.

He was recognised by the Queen in her 2016 Birthday Honours and given a knighthood.