N.Ireland's Donaldson appears in court over rape, other sexual offence charges

By Amanda Ferguson

NEWRY, Northern Ireland (Reuters) -The former leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Jeffrey Donaldson, faces 11 historical sex offence charges, including one count of rape, prosecutors told a Northern Irish court on Wednesday.

Donaldson, 61, stepped down suddenly as head of the British region's largest unionist party last month after the DUP said he had been charged with allegations of an historical nature. He is one of Northern Ireland's best-known politicians.

He appeared in court for the first time on Wednesday, where prosecutors said as well as a rape charge, he was accused of one count of gross indecency towards a child and nine counts of indecent assault on a female.

The charges relate to two complainants and the events allegedly took place from 1985 to 2006.

Judge Eamonn King asked Donaldson if he understood the charges, which Donaldson confirmed. No pleas were taken.

Donaldson's wife, Eleanor, also appeared in court and was charged with aiding and abetting rape, aiding and abetting indecent assault and two counts of cruelty to a person under 16-years-old. She also confirmed she understood the charges.

The matter will be back before the court on May 22 to agree a timetable. Both are free on bail, and the court agreed to remove a condition prohibiting contact between Donaldson and his wife.

Donaldson is Northern Ireland's longest-serving lawmaker in the British parliament, to which he was first elected in 1997.

He brokered a deal with the British government in February over post-Brexit trade rules that allowed the DUP to end its boycott of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government.

As a member of the parliament in London, Donaldson does not hold a position in the power-sharing administration, a key part of the region's 1998 peace settlement that was not able to sit during the DUP's walkout.

The governing parties, including the largest Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, have said the charges against Donaldson will not destabilise the region's fragile political stability.

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson, Writing by Padraic Halpin, Editing by Angus MacSwan)