Jeffrey Donaldson: Shocking charges plunge DUP into disarray - The Irish News view

Lagan Valley MP faces historical sexual offence allegations

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has resigned as DUP leader after being charged with historical sexual offences (Liam McBurney/PA)

Political earthquakes come neither much bigger nor more shocking than yesterday’s extraordinary announcement that Jeffrey Donaldson had resigned as DUP leader and been suspended from the party “pending the outcome of a judicial process” linked to alleged historical sexual offences.

The DUP confirmed that the Lagan Valley MP faced “allegations of a historical nature” following an emergency meeting of party officers which saw Gavin Robinson, the East Belfast MP, appointed as interim leader.

The revelation came after several hours of intense speculation, fuelled by the deletion of Mr Donaldson’s social media accounts and his unexplained absence from planned engagements.

Mr Donaldson was arrested and charged on Thursday with “non-recent sexual offences”. A 57-year-old woman arrested at the same time has been charged with aiding and abetting. He says he will contest the charges. The criminal justice process must now be allowed to take its course.

Mr Donaldson’s departure has profound political ramifications for the DUP and unionism more broadly.

It is encouraging that First Minister Michelle O’Neill says her priority is to ensure that the Executive “delivers for the whole of our community now and in the future”. But that mature approach should be balanced against the very real prospect of the DUP’s internal tensions over the return to power-sharing erupting afresh, yet again destabilising our politics.

Although he was responsible for the entirely wrongheaded policy to abandon Stormont, Mr Donaldson is also inextricably linked to Safeguarding the Union, the fig leaf which allowed the Executive to be rebooted mere weeks ago.

Any DUP leadership contest will be fought on the strength of each candidate’s commitment to Stormont versus how vividly they paint their Brexit fantasies

The DUP membership only narrowly backed the deal. With its cheerleader and architect now gone, how durable will the party’s support for power-sharing and the NI Protocol really be in the weeks ahead?

Sensible people may hope that the DUP has put veto politics behind it, but it should also be acknowledged that the party often does not act sensibly - two years of pointless boycott amply demonstrated that. If there is to be a leadership contest, it will be fought on the strength of each candidate’s commitment to Stormont versus how vividly they paint their Brexit fantasies.

Emma Little-Pengelly could now find her position vulnerable. Co-opted into the Assembly for the seat won by Mr Donaldson and elevated by him to the deputy first minister’s job, she has enjoyed his support. A new leader may not extend the same patronage.

It is difficult to see how Mr Donaldson can contest another Westminster election. Alliance will back themselves to take the Lagan Valley seat he has held since 1997 and which has never been out of unionist hands.

The maelstrom of near-perpetual existential chaos that has engulfed unionism’s lead party for years is becoming only deeper and darker.