Donaldson exit will not derail Northern Ireland power-sharing, say DUP leaders | Northern Ireland

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The resignation of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson over alleged sexual offences will not derail power-sharing in Northern Ireland or fracture the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), according to party leaders.

The statements on Saturday sought to project stability and calm a day after Donaldson stepped down in a political earthquake that stunned the region.

Gavin Robinson, the MP for Belfast East who took over as interim leader, said the police and courts must be allowed to complete their work without interference and that the party would remain focused on core issues.

“Our thoughts are with those suffering and who have put their faith in our criminal justice system,” he said. “There will be some who will attempt to score cheap political points, but I know that colleagues and friends across Northern Ireland will ignore the noise and focus on what really matters.”

Emma Little-Pengelly, the deputy first minister and DUP leader at Stormont, expressed confidence in the criminal justice system and said she would work closely with Robinson, who was appointed in an emergency meeting on Friday. “I want to assure you that I am determined to do all I can to provide stability,” she said.

Donaldson, 61, was charged on 28 March with “non-recent sexual offences” and is to appear at Newry magistrates court in County Down on 24 April. A 57-year-old woman had been charged with aiding and abetting additional offences.

The Lagan Valley MP deleted his X, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts and the party removed his image from its website. On Saturday the police warned against speculation on the case, saying it was a criminal offence to post or publish anything that might lead to the identification of alleged victims in sexual offences investigations.

Donaldson’s downfall came just eight weeks after he persuaded the DUP to revive power-sharing, saying a deal with Downing Street all but removed the Irish Sea border. The party had collapsed the Stormont assembly and executive in 2022 in protest at post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Some unionist hardliners who reject the deal as insufficient view Donaldson’s departure as an opportunity to renew battle over the Irish Sea border and to challenge Robinson, a Donaldson lieutenant who backed the deal.

However, the interim leader won a key endorsement when Sammy Wilson – a veteran DUP MP and potential rebel – pledged support and said the party should not be distracted by a leadership contest. “Our next focus has to be the general election,” Wilson told Cool FM. “There’s a grave threat to the union in this election, and we’ve got to get unionists settled and galvanised and around the party.”

Wilson said the charges against Donaldson had shocked the party. “All of us were kind of gobsmacked that this had happened because there was absolutely no indication that there was anything of this nature about to break. Any party which is hit with this kind of shock is bound to be in turmoil.”