Northern Ireland

As DUP gets ready to defend Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s seat, the party’s former leader prepares for trial

The former Lagan Valley MP now sports a beard and has ditched the ‘Christian fish’ symbol on his lapel

Former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson  at Newry Court over allegations of historical sex offences.
Former DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson at Newry Court over allegations of historical sex offences. PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

On the eve of a Westminster election Sir Jeffrey Donaldson would’ve preferred to be campaigning on the doors in Lagan Valley. Instead, he was in the dock at Newry Magistrates’ Court, alongside his wife Lady Eleanor, both facing historical charges of a sexual nature.

He ceased to be an MP on May 30 when parliament was dissolved. If Rishi Sunak hadn’t called the election, it’s likely the former DUP leader would still be an MP, with his wife still working as his secretary.

Wednesday’s appearance, some ten weeks after the couple’s first, was a preliminary inquiry, a short hearing in which a judge decides whether the accused have a case to answer.

District Judge Eamonn King believes so and set the next hearing for September 10.

The full trial is expected to take place early next year, until when the two defendants will remain on bail – Sir Jeffrey at an address in London, Lady Eleanor at the couple’s home in Dromore, Co Down.

There was significant media interest in Wednesday’s events but not quite as many reporters, photographers and camera crews as last time gathered outside the court entrance.

Unlike the previous hearing, when police were forced to form a cordon to enable Sir Jeffrey’s safe passage into the court and afterwards to a waiting car, the footpaths on both sides of the road were lined with barriers to contain any scrum.

The former DUP leader arrived first, now sporting a beard, walking into the court building nonchalantly, his wife soon afterwards accompanied by solicitor John McBurney.

The pair sat at the rear of the small upstairs courtroom, flanked respectively by a male and female custody officer. Sir Jeffrey was dressed in a navy suit, white shirt and green tie. Notably absent from his lapel was the ichthys symbol, or ‘Jesus fish’, a sign typically used to proclaim an affinity for Christianity, which he wore at his previous appearance.

Lady Eleanor wore black slacks, a white blouse and a cream jacket.

Lady Eleanor Donaldson with solicitor John McBurney (left) arriving at Newry Magistrates’ Court
Lady Eleanor Donaldson with solicitor John McBurney (left) arriving at Newry Magistrates’ Court. PICTURE: NIALL CARSON/PA

The couple faced forward in the courtroom though at one point Sir Jeffrey reached across the front of the custody officer and briefly touched his wife’s hand. She acknowledged his attention but did not look at her husband.

The hearing was brief and matter of fact. The accused spoke only to confirm their names and to state their dates of birth.

There were around a dozen people in the public gallery but with the exception of two older gentlemen, who were later spotted outside loitering among the media personnel, it was difficult to say who was present specifically for this case.

The couple left the courthouse around an hour later – Lady Eleanor first, and Sir Jeffrey around 20 minutes later.

Whereas some observers shouted abuse at Sir Jeffrey as he left his April appearance, the only sounds on the footpath were the clicking of cameras and passing traffic.

For something so spectacularly newsworthy, the event itself was all rather routine and mundane.

Meanwhile, 25 miles up the road in the Lagan Valley seat Sir Jeffrey has held since 1997, his former colleagues were doing their final campaigning, hoping the episode that has cast a dark shadow across the DUP will be at the back of voters’ minds on polling day.

If the DUP loses the seat, the party will likely blame its former leader and the adverse publicity his case has generated. If they emerge as winners, however, it will represent an important victory in the face of adversity.

We can only guess if Sir Jeffrey will stay up into the early hours of Friday morning waiting to find out the fate of his former Westminster seat. No doubt of much greater importance to the one-time privy counsellor and his wife will be the outcome of next year’s trial.