Ex-Unionist Leader Charged in N. Ireland Over Sexual Assault

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(Bloomberg) -- Jeffrey Donaldson, one of Northern Ireland’s most important political figures, was accused of sexual assault crimes spanning two decades at a UK court hearing Monday after his arrest in March that sent shock-waves through the region.

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The former leader of the Democratic Unionist Party appeared at Newry Magistrates Court charged with one count of gross indecency toward a child, nine counts of indecent assault and one of rape. The charges span two decades.

His wife Eleanor Donaldson, also present in court, faces four charges. Both said they understand the charges in court.

Donaldson previously said he will contest the charges.

Donaldson faces nine allegations of indecent assault between 1985 and 2006 and a charge of committing an act of gross indecency toward a child between 2005 and 2006. The rape charge he faces alleges that he had unlawful sexual intercourse with the alleged victim without her consent on a date unknown between 1985 and 1991.

Eleanor Donaldson faces four charges in total, two allegations of aiding and abetting and two of willful neglect over a time period of 1985 to 2004.

The couple sat in the dock separated by a custody officer while the charges were read. Judge Eamonn King released the couple on bail. The next hearing date was set for May 22, the defendants are not obliged to attend the hearing. Under the bail conditions the defendants are allowed to be in contact with each other but not with witnesses.

The Democratic Unionist Party suspended Donaldson, 61, as its leader in an emergency meeting in March when the allegations were first revealed. The scandal has stained his legacy, having only recently been hailed for restoring the region’s government after two years of political stasis.

His party, which campaigns for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK, had boycotted the Stormont assembly over post-Brexit trading rules. It said the rules had undermined Northern Ireland’s standing in the union. The region’s government can only function when the two biggest unionist and nationalist parties agree to share power.

The DUP’s return to Stormont was praised as a success for upholding the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 treaty that has largely preserved peace in Northern Ireland after a period of violence known as the Troubles. The restoration of power sharing also bolstered UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s efforts to ease disputes with the European Union.

The political bombshell will be difficult for the DUP to navigate, as it already faces the task of trying to unite divided unionists ahead of a UK general election anticipated this year. Demographically, the traditional unionist vote is declining, with some voters opting instead for the non-sectarian Alliance party.

There are fears within unionism that this decline could one day lead to a United Ireland. The shock exit of Donaldson, who has had a prominent role in unionist politics for decades, is unlikely to alleviate those worries or strengthen the DUP’s image either.

(Updates with details from court in fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs.)

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