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UK and Ireland praise Stormont leaders for backing cohesion amid political shock

Northern Ireland’s political parties have been praised by the UK and Irish governments for emphasising the need for stability following the shock resignation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

Sir Jeffrey quit as DUP leader on Friday after being charged with several historical sexual offences.

First Minister Michelle O’Neill and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly have since given reassurances over the future of the recently-revived powersharing institutions.

Speaking on Sunday, Ms O’Neill said that “now more than ever, what we need to see is cohesion”.

“My priority as First Minister is to provide that stability, to work with all the other party leaders, all those who form our Executive,” she said in Dublin.

“It’s really really important now that we knuckle down.”

1916 Easter Rising commemoration
First Minister Michelle O’Neill speaks to the media following a ceremony at the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising (PA)

She said she had spoken to the new DUP interim leader, East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, and that the leaders of the Stormont parties would “remain engaged”.

“Our collective priority now is around cohesion, it’s around leadership, it’s around working together and it’s around making politics work for today, tomorrow and into the future.”

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris said that after Friday’s “shocking news”, Ms O’Neill’s and Ms Little-Pengelly’s commitment to ensure their administration continues was welcomed.

He said he looked forward to working with Mr Robinson and delivering on a deal his Government struck with the DUP party to pave the way for the Executive to return.

“We will continue to work alongside the Executive to make Northern Ireland a great place to live, work and invest.”

Further Education Minister Simon Harris, who is expected to be voted in as Irish premier in a few days’ time, also praised Ms O’Neill and Ms Little-Pengelly for putting “the people’s business to the fore”.

1916 Easter Rising commemoration
Fine Gael leader and Further Education Minister Simon Harris and First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill during a ceremony at the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin to mark the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising (Niall Carson/PA)

“I’m very conscious of the need for everybody to respect that process and the sensitivities around it outside of political and media commentary,” he said, speaking a Dublin on Sunday.

“As a political leader, my priority is to continue to support the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, to continue to engage on a North-South, East-West basis in every way that we can.

“I very much welcome the comments of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister in recent days in relation to ensuring that the people’s business remains to the fore of all their minds.”

Ireland’s Transport Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the message of stability and delivery from Northern Ireland’s political leaders was “really important”.

1916 Easter Rising commemoration
First Minister Michelle O’Neill and Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during a ceremony at the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin (Niall Carson/PA)

“We have a North South Ministerial (Council) coming up and we’ll be very much encouraging the use of the institutions, the need for political leadership,” he said.

“I think all the leaders up north and all the parties have an obligation, in my mind, to provide that now.”

Sir Jeffrey’s exit from the political frontline has sent shockwaves through Stormont, less than two months after devolution was restored following a two-year stalemate over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The Lagan Valley MP was pivotal to the deal that resurrected powersharing, and his sudden departure, and the manner of it, has created the first major challenge for the recently formed four-party coalition.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson resigns as DUP leader
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit on Friday (PA)

Mr Robinson was closely aligned to Sir Jeffrey’s political strategy, so his elevation is unlikely to see the DUP step back from its recent enthusiastic backing of powersharing.

However, his election as permanent leader is not a foregone conclusion and it remains to be seen if other candidates, potentially more sceptical of the return of devolution, will emerge.

Ms Little-Pengelly, who was Sir Jeffrey’s choice as the DUP nominee for deputy First Minister, said she was “devastated” at the disclosures.

Stormont Assembly
Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim DUP leader (PA)

However, she said her focus was on providing stability and delivering for the people.

“I will be working closely with our new interim party leader Gavin Robinson and my colleagues in the time ahead to continue the work of tackling the big issues faced by Northern Ireland,” she said.

“There is much to do. We are determined to deliver for all of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Mr Robinson sent a message to party colleagues on Saturday offering similar reassurances, saying the DUP was “not about any one individual”.

It is understood that Sir Jeffrey, 61, who has been suspended from the DUP, is facing one count of rape, one count of gross indecency, and several counts of indecent assault.

It is further understood that in a letter to party officers informing them of the allegations he made clear he would be “strenuously contesting” all charges against him.

Taoiseach visit to the US
Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly have received widespread praise for their leadership of the executive since devolution was restored in February (PA)

Sir Jeffrey, who was arrested and charged on Thursday, will appear in court in Newry, Co Down, on April 24 in relation to the non-recent sexual allegations.

He travelled to London early on Friday after his release from Antrim police station on Thursday.

A 57-year-old woman has been charged with aiding and abetting offences in relation to the same police investigation.

Police have advised the public to avoid speculating about the case, with officers highlighting that it was a criminal offence to post or publish anything that might lead to the identification of alleged victims in sexual offences investigations.