Sir Jeffrey Donaldson steps down as DUP’s leader after being charged with historical sexual offences

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson steps down as DUP's leader after being charged with historical sexual offences

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has stepped down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party with immediate effect after he was charged with historical sexual offences.

In a statement, the DUP said: “The party chairman has received a letter from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP confirming that he has been charged with allegations of an historical nature and indicating that he is stepping down as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party with immediate effect.

“In accordance with the party rules, the party officers have suspended Mr Donaldson from membership, pending the outcome of a judicial process.

“The party officers have unanimously appointed Mr Gavin Robinson MP as the interim party leader.”

It is understood Donaldson will be “strenuously contesting” all charges against him.

He has led the party since 2021, but has been the MP for Lagan Valley since 1997.

Prior to joining the DUP, he was part of the Ulster Unionist Party’s delegation to negotiate the Good Friday Peace agreement.

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It comes after the Police Service of Northern Ireland said a man had been charged with non-recent sex offences.

A PSNI spokesman said: “Detectives from the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested and charged a 61-year-old man for non-recent sexual offences.

“A 57-year-old woman was also arrested and charged at the time for aiding and abetting additional offences.”

Both are due to appear before Newry Magistrates’ Court on 24 April.

An inauspicious end to a decades-long career

David Blevins - Senior Ireland correspondent

David Blevins

Senior Ireland correspondent


The DUP has weathered many storms, but this is a political earthquake for the party.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s departure under a cloud will have ramifications in both the short-term and long-term.

It will rock the newly established power-sharing government, of which the DUP forms one half.

And maintaining its seats at Westminster in the upcoming general election will be a mountain for the party to climb.

The DUP is well known for its conservative views on social issues like same-sex marriage.

Any whiff of impropriety, never mind alleged offence, leaves it open to allegations of hypocrisy.

In 2010, DUP leader Peter Robinson stepped down briefly as first minister when his wife confessed to an extra-marital affair.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has not only resigned but had his party membership suspended, pending the outcome of the judicial process.

It’s an inauspicious end to the political career of Northern Ireland’s longest-serving member of parliament.

Donaldson came to national prominence for his part in the confidence and supply agreement which propped up Theresa May’s government with DUP support following the 2017 election.

But the DUP ended up voting against Mrs May’s deal – and ultimately her government collapsed.

He became leader of the party in Westminster in 2019, and took overall control in 2021.

Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein first minister of Northern Ireland, said: “My priority is to continue to provide the leadership the public expect and deserve, and to ensure the four-party executive coalition delivers for the whole of our community now and in the future.

“The DUP leader has resigned after being charged with serious offences.

“This is now a matter for the criminal justice system.”

Mr Robinson, who has taken over the reins of the party on an interim basis, became the DUP deputy leader in June 2023.

Gavin Robinson MP. Pic: PA
Gavin Robinson MP. Pic: PA

He joined the Commons in 2015, having previously been lord mayor of Belfast, and a councillor for the city.

Conservative MP and former Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said Mr Robinson’s selection was a “very positive decision”.

He added that Mr Robinson had “played a key role in a tough negotiation to restore powersharing and along with other DUP colleagues will chart a positive course for the future”.

It is understood Donaldson remains an MP.

A spokesperson for the House of Commons said: “We are aware of the announcement by the police, but will not be commenting on individual cases.”