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Wilson: Donaldson resignation amid charges has plunged DUP into ‘turmoil’

The DUP has been plunged into “turmoil” by the shock resignation of leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior party colleague has said.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson described the revelation that Sir Jeffrey had been charged with historical sex offences as a “bolt from the blue”.

Mr Wilson also gave his full backing to interim leader Gavin Robinson, insisting the Democratic Unionist Party should not be distracted by a leadership contest this side of the general election.

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey quit as DUP leader on Friday and was also suspended by the party.

It is understood that Sir Jeffrey is charged with 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.

The 61-year-old politician, 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 following his release from Antrim police station on Thursday night.

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

On Saturday, police issued a warning against speculation on 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.

East Belfast MP Mr Robinson, who was DUP deputy leader, was unanimously appointed interim leader in an emergency meeting of the party hierarchy on Friday.

Mr Wilson said the party now had to regroup and focus on the election.

“We were all shocked, this just came totally out of the blue,” he told Cool FM news.

“We found out about it, I think, just the night before. We called a meeting then first thing in the morning and all of us were kind of gobsmacked that this had happened because there was absolutely no indication that there was anything of this nature about to break.”

Sammy Wilson
Sammy Wilson said the DUP now had to regroup and focus on the election (PA)

He added: “Any party which is hit with this kind of shock is bound to be in turmoil.

“On Thursday we thought we were getting prepared for a general election. We were going to talk about the kind of themes for the general election, that was really what the focus was, and then suddenly you’re thrown totally off course.”

Mr Robinson had been a key ally of Sir Jeffrey and was fully behind his decision to back a Government deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements that saw the DUP end its two-year boycott of powersharing at Stormont and return to the Assembly and Executive in February.

Mr Wilson is among several high-profile party members who have been openly critical of the Government measures, insisting they have not gone far enough to remove the so-called Irish Sea border.

Despite their different views on the deal, Mr Wilson made clear he was fully supportive of Mr Robinson leading their party into the general election.

Countdown to UK general election
(PA Graphics)

“Our next focus has to be the general election,” he said.

“We’re going to have a general election in which unionism is going to be under huge threat.

“I’ve no doubt that the events of this week will galvanise those anti-unionist parties – the SDLP, Sinn Fein, the Alliance (party) will see that we’ve been weakened by this. They’ll make a big push.

“There’s division within unionism, which is going to be difficult, as well. And this is an election where I know Sinn Fein’s aim is to become the biggest party for the third time, the third election (in a row) in Northern Ireland, and then of course, if there’s a new Labour government, they’ll push for a referendum (on Irish unity) etc.

“So we know how crucial this election is and, therefore, we’re going to focus now on Gavin getting our message across that, look, there’s a grave threat to the Union in this election, and we’ve got to get unionists settled and galvanised and around the party, the only unionist party that can really successfully steer a way through this election.”

Mr Wilson added: “We’re not going to start focusing now on a leadership election.

“The fact that we chose (Mr Robinson) unanimously shows that there’s a confidence that he can take us through these difficult circumstances. And, of course, we’ll all rally behind him and give him whatever support he needs.”

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is MP for Lagan Valley (PA)

Sir Jeffrey’s membership of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland has also been suspended following the charges.

The former leader’s website and social media accounts, including X, Facebook and Instagram, have all been deleted.

Friday’s shock announcement came just weeks after the long-standing MP made the decision to return the party to powersharing in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey, who has had an almost 40-year career in politics, became DUP leader in July 2021.

His career started with the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and in 1985, aged 22, he was the youngest person to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

His relationship with former UUP leader David Trimble deteriorated when he led a walkout of the 1998 peace talks after opposing the early release of republican and loyalist prisoners.

He left the UUP to join the DUP in January 2004.

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