DUP focus unchanged after ‘difficult’ week - Gavin Robinson

Upheaval in the DUP over the resignation of Jeffrey Donaldson as party leader should not deflect unionism from the task ahead, Gavin Robinson has said.

The interim DUP leader was speaking almost a week on from being installed in the role.

Sir Jeffrey resigned as party leader on Friday after being charged with rape and other historical sexual offences.

He has said he will strenuously contest the allegations.

On Thursday, Mr Robinson - who is also the East Belfast MP - said he had been engaging with colleagues over the last number of days and that the past week had been "incredibly difficult and shocking".

But he said the news "should not deflect from the important task we have ahead of us as representatives for unionism and for Northern Ireland".

"Let me assure you that our focus is undiminished on making sure our place in the UK is as strong as it can be, recognising the importance associated with the restoration of devolution," he said.

Mr Robinson said there were "no mixed messages" about support for him within the party.

However, when asked whether there was unity about the deal the party signed up to that restored Stormont, he said that work continued.

He also criticised those he claimed sought to use events of the past week "to sow discord for party political purposes".

He added that in the coming weeks, there would be internal discussions about the leadership of the party - the deputy leader position is now vacant.

Mr Robinson had held it since last June before taking over as interim leader.

He said it was an internal matter and that the party would not be "inviting introspection or encouraging disharmony where there is none".

Earlier on Thursday, MP Carla Lockhart said there were no "dissenting voices" challenging Mr Robinson's installation.

Ms Lockhart, who is the MP for Upper Bann, said the revelations had come as a "big shock".

She also said whether Sir Jeffrey should stand down as MP Lagan Valley was "for him to decide".

'Support of the entire party'

Ms Lockhart added her voice to support for Mr Robinson and said there would be "no leadership challenges".

"Gavin has the support of the entire party, Gavin will do an excellent job," she said.

Mr Robinson had been deputy leader of the party since last June, until he was installed as interim DUP leader on Friday.

Gavin Robinson making a speech
Gavin Robinson, the Belfast East MP, is the DUP's new interim leader [PA Media]

It is understood he had the unanimous support of the party's officers, who decide major decisions and set policy.

Ms Lockhart is one of the party's officers, and said it was "right" the DUP had taken action and that the party was focused on delivering for Northern Ireland.

"But it is important we in no way put at risk the justice system and allow the PSNI to do their jobs," she added.

The MP also insisted that the DUP was a family and "not about one person" and that the party would go into the upcoming general election as a team.

"It is important we show unionist unity and unite unionism - that's what I'm about."

On Friday, the DUP said Sir Jeffrey had confirmed he had been charged with historical allegations and was stepping down as leader.

The party's officers suspended him from membership, pending the outcome of the case.

Sir Jeffrey's letter to the DUP said he would be strenuously contesting the charges.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the police said they were investigating the contents of a social media post relating to the Sir Jeffrey Donaldson case.The PSNI did not identify Sir Jeffrey, but said it had "received a report relating to a post online and are examining the content to determine if any offences have been committed".