N.Ireland unionist leader resigns over reported sex offences

Jeffrey Donaldson (C) has been suspended by the N. Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (Paul Faith)
Jeffrey Donaldson (C) has been suspended by the N. Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (Paul Faith)

Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of Northern Ireland's main pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and one of its best known politicians, resigned on Friday after police charged him with reported sex offences.

Media outlets have said the move is linked to an earlier statement from Northern Irish police that a 61-year-old man had been arrested and charged "in relation to non-recent sexual offences".

Donaldson, 61, was charged Thursday with "rape and multiple other sexual offences," the BBC reported. He has told the DUP that he will be strenuously contesting the accusations, it added.

The shock development comes at a pivotal moment for the British territory, just weeks after the restoration of devolved power-sharing following the end of the DUP's two-year boycott of the Stormont Assembly.

The resumption of power-sharing led to Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill making history by becoming Northern Ireland's first pro-Irish nationalist leader.

The DUP said Donaldson had confirmed in a letter to the party's chairman that he had been "charged with allegations of an historical nature" and that he was resigning as leader "with immediate effect".

He has been suspended from the party pending the outcome of the legal process, it added.

The DUP statement, which followed an emergency party meeting, did not refer to the nature of the alleged offences.

Party officers had unanimously appointed deputy leader Gavin Robinson, another DUP lawmaker in the UK parliament, as interim leader, it added.

Hours earlier, several of Donaldson's social media accounts had been abruptly deleted.

- 'Serious offences' -

A spokesperson for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said the force does not comment on "named individuals".

In its earlier statement, it had said detectives "arrested and charged a 61-year-old man for non-recent sexual offences".

The force added: "A 57-year-old woman was also arrested and charged at the time for aiding and abetting additional offences."

Both are set to appear before Newry Magistrates Court on 24 April.

First Minister Michelle O'Neill said the reported charges were "serious offences" and that "this is 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 added.

Donaldson, a longtime player in Northern Irish unionist politics, became DUP leader in 2021.

The party collapsed power-sharing in February 2022 in protest against post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, which shares the UK's only land border with the European Union.

It argued the trade terms -- agreed to avoid a so-called hard border with the Republic of Ireland to the south -- risked cutting the territory adrift from the rest of the United Kingdom.

But its boycott of the assembly paralysed Northern Ireland's public services, and fuelled both political uncertainty and industrial unrest.

Donaldson announced in February that the party had struck a deal with the UK government in London to break the deadlock, paving the way for Stormont to be restored.

- Long-serving -

In turn, that saw O'Neill become Northern Ireland's first minister.

The appointment of a Roman Catholic, pro-Irish unity leader in a nation set up as a Protestant-majority state under British rule was hailed as hugely symbolic.

The DUP's Emma Little-Pengelly became her deputy.

Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended decades of sectarian violence over British rule in Northern Ireland, the first minister and deputy first minister posts are equal.

Donaldson's resignation could now trigger more political turmoil in the region, according to pundits.

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

As well as being the second largest party in the Northern Irish assembly -- behind Sinn Fein -- the DUP had eight MPs in the UK parliament in Westminster.

Donaldson's suspension means he will now sit as an independent and reduces that number to seven.

Donaldson, who was recognised by the late Queen Elizabeth II in 2016 when he received a knighthood, is the longest serving MP with a Northern Irish constituency, having been first been elected in 1997.

He had been expected to lead the DUP into the next UK general election, likely to take place later this year, but now faces a challenge to retain his seat if he stands at all.