Berliner Tageblatt - N. Ireland unionist ex-leader in court over sex charges

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N. Ireland unionist ex-leader in court over sex charges
N. Ireland unionist ex-leader in court over sex charges / Photo: © AFP/File

N. Ireland unionist ex-leader in court over sex charges

Jeffrey Donaldson, the former leader of Northern Ireland's main pro-UK unionist party appears in court on Wednesday over alleged sex offences that have rocked the region's politics.

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Donaldson, 61, one of the province's best known politicians, resigned as leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on March 29 after police charged him with "historical" sexual offences against two complainants.

Donaldson is facing one charge of rape and has been accused of 10 other sexual offences, including gross indecency and indecent assault. The complainants cannot be named for legal reasons.

The politician, who is an MP in the UK parliament, has said he will be "strenuously contesting" the allegations.

His wife Eleanor Donaldson, 57, who is employed as his parliamentary secretary, is facing three charges of aiding and abetting.

Donaldson's bail conditions meant he had to leave Northern Ireland, reside at his London flat and have no contact with his wife, who was bailed to her home address in the province.

According to media he is expected to apply for a bail variation that would allow the pair to resume contact, while the criminal case process is likely to take at least a year.

Security is expected to be tight around the court in Newry, 60 kilometres (37 miles) south of Belfast, as several paramilitary group members will be at unrelated hearings the same day.

- Longtime player -

Donaldson, a longtime player in Northern Irish unionist politics and devout churchgoer who wore the ancient Christian symbol of a fish in his lapel, became DUP leader in 2021.

The party collapsed power-sharing at the Northern Ireland assembly in Belfast in February 2022 in protest at post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, which shares the UK's only land border with the European Union.

It argued the trade terms -- agreed to avoid a so-called hard border with EU member the Republic of Ireland to the south and preserve peace after 30 years of sectarian conflict over British rule -- risked cutting Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Donaldson announced in February that the party had struck a deal with the government to break the deadlock, paving the way for the assembly to resume.

The resumption of power-sharing led to Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill making history by becoming Northern Ireland's first pro-Irish nationalist leader.

- Unprecedented situation -

As well as being the second largest party in the Northern Irish assembly behind Sinn Fein, the DUP had eight MPs in the UK parliament until Donaldson was suspended.

Donaldson, who received a knighthood in 2016, is the longest serving MP with a Northern Irish constituency, having been first elected in 1997.

He had been expected to lead the DUP into a general election this year but is now expected to quit.

The DUP said it had no knowledge of the allegations until his arrest on March 28. It removed all trace of the politician from its website and closed down his social media accounts.

Deputy leader Gavin Robinson, a lawyer who also sits in the UK parliament, has been appointed interim DUP leader.

Robinson, seen as a moderate, has pledged to provide stability to ensure the Belfast assembly is shielded from upheaval over the Donaldson affair.

"There are no precedents in Northern Ireland for dealing with this sort of situation, so the DUP has no idea of how its voting base will respond," unionist commentator Alex Kane told AFP.

"Will the voters see this as a Donaldson-only issue, or will they see it as a wider reflection on the party? At this point nobody knows."