Northern Ireland

Stormont’s leaders focus on stability amid DUP upheaval

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit on Friday with Gavin Robinson taking interim charge .

First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly .
First Minister Michelle O’Neill (left) and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly . (Oliver McVeigh/PA)

Stormont’s leaders have stressed a desire to maintain stability in the fledgling powersharing executive, amid the upheaval in the DUP following the shock resignation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who was deputy leader, has been appointed interim DUP leader.

Sir Jeffrey’s exit from the political frontline has sent shockwaves through Stormont, less than two months after devolution was restored following a two-year stalemate over post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The Lagan Valley MP was pivotal to the deal that resurrected powersharing, and his sudden departure, and the manner of it, has created the first major challenge for the recently formed four-party coalition.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit on Friday
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson quit on Friday (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Robinson was closely aligned to Sir Jeffrey’s political strategy, so his elevation is unlikely to see the DUP step back from its recent enthusiastic backing of 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.

On Saturday, Sinn Fein First Minister Michelle O’Neill and DUP deputy First Minister Emma Little Pengelly, who have received significant praise for their stewardship of the executive since it was re-established, both gave reassurances over the future of the administration.

Ms O’Neill, who held talks with the leaders of the other executive parties after Sir Jeffrey’s resignation, said powersharing was not under threat.

She said the four parties – Sinn Fein, the DUP, the Alliance Party and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) – were focused on “cohesion” amid the furore.

“My priority is in terms of the local executive and making sure that that continues to do its job,” Ms O’Neill told Sky News.

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

Ms Little-Pengelly, who was Sir Jeffrey’s choice as the DUP nominee for deputy First Minister, said she was “devastated” at the disclosures.

Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim DUP leader
Gavin Robinson has been appointed interim DUP leader (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, she said her focus was on providing stability and delivering for the people.

“I want to assure you that I am determined to do all I can to provide stability,” she said in a social media statement.

“I will be working closely with our new interim party leader Gavin Robinson and my colleagues in the time ahead to continue the work of tackling the big issues faced by Northern Ireland.

“There is much to do. We are determined to deliver for all of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Mr Robinson sent a message to party colleagues on Saturday offering similar reassurances, saying the DUP was “not about any one individual”.

However, also on Saturday, veteran DUP MP Sammy Wilson admitted that the party had been plunged into “turmoil”.

Mr Wilson gave his full backing to Mr Robinson, saying the DUP should not be distracted by a leadership contest this side of the general election.

Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly have received widespread praise for their leadership of the executive since devolution was restored in February
Michelle O’Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly have received widespread praise for their leadership of the executive since devolution was restored in February (Niall Carson/PA)

Mr Robinson was unanimously appointed interim DUP leader in an emergency meeting of the party hierarchy on Friday.

In an Easter message to the DUP faithful, seen by the PA news agency, he wrote: “The Democratic Unionist Party is not about any one individual. We are a party of MPs, MLAs, councillors, and scores of dedicated members across all parts of Northern Ireland.

“We exist to build a better and stronger Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”

Mr Robinson had been a key ally of Sir Jeffrey and was fully behind his decision to back a UK Government deal on post-Brexit trade that saw the DUP end its two-year boycott of powersharing and return to the Assembly and Executive in February.

Mr Wilson is among several high-profile party members who have been openly critical of the Government measures, saying they have not gone far enough to remove the so-called Irish Sea border.

Despite their different views on the deal, Mr Wilson made clear he was fully supportive of Mr Robinson leading their party into the general election.

“We’re not going to start focusing now on a leadership election,” he told Cool FM news.

“The fact that we chose (Mr Robinson) unanimously shows that there’s a confidence that he can take us through these difficult circumstances. And, of course, we’ll all rally behind him and give him whatever support he needs.”

Sir Jeffrey’s website and social media accounts, including X, Facebook and Instagram, have all been deleted.

Sir Jeffrey, who has had an almost 40-year career in politics, became DUP leader in July 2021.

His career started with the UUP and in 1985, aged 22, he was the youngest person to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

His 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 UUP to join the DUP in January 2004.

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