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Donaldson steps down as DUP leader amid ‘historical’ sex offence charges

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has quit as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party after being charged with historical sex offences.

The 61-year-old politician is due to appear in court in Newry, Co Down, on April 24 having been arrested and charged in relation to non-recent sexual allegations.

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

The Lagan Valley MP has been suspended from the DUP pending the outcome of the judicial process and East Belfast MP and deputy leader Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim party leader.

The DUP said it had received a letter from Sir Jeffrey stating that he had been charged with allegations of a historical nature and that he would be stepping down as leader.

In a statement, the DUP said: “In accordance with the party rules, the party officers have suspended Mr Donaldson from membership, pending the outcome of a judicial process.

“The party officers have this morning unanimously appointed Mr Gavin Robinson MP as the interim party leader.”

Mr Robinson said: “It has been a devastating revelation and has caused tremendous shock not just for myself personally or my colleagues within the DUP, but for the community right across Northern Ireland.

“It came as a great shock. But we are a party and individuals that believe in justice, we have faith in our criminal justice system.”

Mr Robinson said the party became aware of the allegations “very late” on Thursday.

He told Sky News: “So, in the coming days and months I think it is important none of us say anything or act in any way that would seek to prejudice what is now an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Overnight, Mr Donaldson’s website and social media accounts, including X, Facebook and Instagram, were deleted.

The shock announcement comes just weeks after Sir Jeffrey made the decision to bring the party back to powersharing in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jeffrey’s leadership saw him steer the party’s two-year boycott of Northern Ireland’s political institutions in protest over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

After protracted negotiations, the DUP agreed to return to Stormont in February following the agreement of a new deal and a series of assurances around Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom.

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.

The 61-year-old’s 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 party and joined the DUP in January 2004.

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