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Powersharing in Northern Ireland is not under threat, Michelle O’Neill says

Powersharing in Northern Ireland is not at risk after the leadership turmoil within the DUP, Stormont’s First Minister has said.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said she had approached the leaders of the three other parties in the ministerial executive in Belfast – the DUP, Alliance and Ulster Unionists – to ensure “cohesion” amid the political fallout from the shock resignation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

Sir Jeffrey quit as DUP leader on Friday after being charged with historical sexual offences. East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim leader.

The deal that restored powersharing earlier this year hinged on the backing of Sir Jeffrey, and his sudden exit from the political frontline has prompted renewed speculation around the stability of the devolved institutions.

Northern Ireland politicians visit the US
Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill (right) and deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly (Niall Carson/PA).

Mr Robinson was closely aligned to Sir Jeffrey’s political strategy so his elevation is unlikely to see the party step back from its recent enthusiastic backing for 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 O’Neill held talks with Mr Robinson and the other parties leaders on Friday after the disclosures about Sir Jeffrey.

“I think everybody was shocked,” she said of Friday’s developments.

“(It’s) a very challenging time, not least for those people that have come forward to the police.”

In an interview with Sky News, she added: “My priority is in terms of the local Executive and making sure that that continues to do its job.

“My priority in this period is to provide that leadership that the public rightly deserve and expect from their political leaders.

“I’ve spoken to the new interim leader of the DUP, Gavin Robinson. I’ve also spoken to my Executive colleagues, the political leaders around the Executive table, just in terms of the work that we have to do, that we need to prioritise cohesion and leadership through these times.”

Stormont Assembly
Gavin Robinson (left) has become interim DUP leader after the resignation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (right) (PA)

Ms O’Neill said all the party leaders shared the view that there is no threat to the powersharing institutions.

“The public here rightly deserve our newly formed Executive to continue to deliver for them for now and into the future,” the First Minister said.

“My priority is to make that powersharing work, my priority is to work with the other political leaders around the Executive table.

“That was why I thought it was important yesterday to reach out to each of the political leaders to talk about the need for cohesion, to talk about the need for leadership and to talk about the delivery that we now need to get on with in terms of the Executive itself.”

She added: “My priority is to provide leadership in this period, my priority is to work with all the other Executive colleagues, my priority is to make sure that we deliver in terms of programme for government, and the day-to-day matters that people want us to be prioritising.

“The public rightly expect their political leaders to deliver for them. That’s where I’m going to be focused.”